In Tennessee, if you want to modify the court-ordered Parenting Plan for your child, you must prove that there has been “a material change in circumstances” and that a modification is in the child’s “best interests.” In this post, we will look at the first of those two requirements.
There are no bright-line rules for determining when a material change in circumstances has occurred, but relevant considerations include: (1) whether a change has occurred after the entry of the order sought to be modified; (2) whether a change was not known or reasonably anticipated when the order was entered; and (3) whether a change is one that affects the child’s well-being in a meaningful way.
A material change in circumstance may include a failure to adhere to the original Parenting Plan or circumstances that make the parenting plan no longer in the best interest of the child.
Can changes in the parents’ marital status, work schedules and the manner in which they exercise their parenting time combine to form a material change in circumstances? The answer is “yes,” and a good recent example is the case of In re Harli B, decided by the Tennessee Court of Appeals on June 27, 2014.
In that case, when the original Parenting Plan was approved, the parties had not been married. and the father was designated as the primary residential parent of their two-year old child, in part, because the mother was temporarily living with her father while the father owned a home and had a stable work schedule. The parties were awarded equal parenting time with an alternating weekly schedule. Over the next two years, both parents married, and the mother had three additional children. She then quit her job to become a stay-at-home mother to those children. The father also married, and took a new job with less regular hours.
As a result of these changes, the mother filed a petition to modify the Parenting Plan Order, requesting that she be made the primary residential parent. Based on the changes that had occurred, and its finding that the mother had been acting as the de facto primary residential parent, the trial court granted her petition, and designated her the primary residential parent. The trial court gave particular credence to the mother’s testimony that she had assumed the more active role in the child’s daily care, healthcare, and extracurricular activities, that she scheduled all of the child’s medical and dental appointments, kept the child up-to-date on her vaccinations, and enrolled her in weekly activities such as cheer leading, dance, and soccer. She also testified that the father was not committed to the child’s participation in those activities, and that the child would often miss her activities during his parenting time. The mother also testified that although the father was the primary residential parent, he had not attended to the details of the child’s school registration, and he was unsure where she would go to school. She also testified that the father was not maximizing his time with the child as it was his habit to take the child to daycare even when he was not working.
The Court of Appeals affirmed, noting that “the trial court principally identified two changes which warranted modification of the primary residential parent: (1) changes in the child’s family dynamics, including her parents’ marriages and the addition of three younger siblings; and (2) the significant changes to Father’s work schedule.”
The Bottom Line: Changes in marital status, work schedules and the manner in which parenting time is exercised can contribute to a finding of a material change of circumstances warranting the modification of a parenting plan.