After The Divorce: What Can Happen If You Try To Alienate Your Children’s Affections Toward You Former Spouse, And Talk To Them About The Case

The divorce is finally over.  You have a Parenting Plan Order for your children. It says you are not allowed to make derogatory remarks about your ex to the kids. And, the judge told you not to try to turn the kids against your ex. But, surely, you think, such warnings aren’t really going to be enforced.  The court case is done.  Life goes on. Surely, you can say whatever you want to your own children, right?  Wrong!

On October 3, 2014, the Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld a determination by the Williamson County Chancery Court, which modified a Parenting Plan Order, post-divorce. (The name of the case is intentionally not included here.) The case is a good example of what can happen when one divorced parent seeks to alienate the children’s affections toward, and bad mouths, the other parent.  Here’s what happened.

The parties divorced in 2009, having three children who were 9, 12 and 14 years of age at the time.  Under the original Parenting Plan Order, the mother was named the primary residential parent. She was awarded 285 days a year with the children, and the father was awarded 80 days

Not long after the divorce, the mother petitioned the Chancery Court to reduce the father’s time with the children due to his efforts to alienate them from her. The Chancery Court granted  the mother’s request by limiting the father’s time with the children to four hours of supervised visitation every two weeks. In so doing, it determined that the father’s interference with the mother’s relationship with the children was a material change of circumstance, and that limiting his parenting time was in the children’s best interest.

As the Court of Appeals stated, in upholding the trial court’s decision:

“Modification of a court’s prior order with regard to a residential parenting schedule is governed by statute:

If the issue before the court is a modification of the court’s prior decree pertaining to a residential parenting schedule, then the petitioner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence a material change of circumstance affecting the child’s best interest. A material change of circumstance does not require a showing of a substantial risk of harm to the child. A material change of circumstance for purposes of modification of a residential parenting schedule may include, but is not limited to, significant changes in the needs of the child over time, which may include changes relating to age; significant changes in the parent’s living or working condition that significantly affect parenting; failure to adhere to the parenting plan; or other circumstances making a change in the residential parenting time in the best interest of the child.”

In affirming the Chancery court’s finding that there had been a material change of circumstances, the Court of Appeals noted the father’s having admitted that, following the divorce, he told the children: (1) the mother may have been involved in the death of his current wife’s dog; (2) photographs the mother gave to the children were used by her as exhibits during the divorce trial; (3) the mother testified during a deposition that the children had lied; (4) the mother and one of the father’s former employees tried to take over the father’s business; (5) the mother did not earn her valedictorian medal; (6) the mother secured a $300 loan from their church on the same day that she purchased liquor from a store; and (7) the mother lied in court.

The Court of Appeals also agreed with the Chancery Court’s finding that a modification of the Parenting Plan Order was in the children’s best interests.  The Court of Appeals noted that the adverse effect a parent’s involvement or conduct may have on a child is relevant to that issue.  In that regard, the Court of Appeals concurred with the Chancery Court’s finding that the father had neglected or substantially failed to perform his parenting responsibilities, based, in part, on his failure to encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the children and their mother. In addition, the Court of Appeals agreed that there was evidence that the father had used conflict with the mother to create a danger or damage to the children’s psychological development.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  After your divorce, do NOT try to turn your children against your former spouse, and do NOT tell them about testimony or things that occurred in court during the divorce case.

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