TN Supreme Court Makes it Easier to Move Away with the Kids

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently made a significant change to Tennessee Law that will make it easier for one parent to move the kids away from the other parent.  The case is Aragon v. Aragon, and while the Court made the correct decision, the facts of the case are pretty awful.

Background

The parties divorced in 2010, and they had one young daughter.  As part of the divorce, the parties entered an agreed parenting plan that split up the parenting time equally, each parent having 182.5 days each year with the child.

The father lived in Clarksville, where he was pursuing an associate’s degree in nursing.  Mother had a residence in Hermitage, but also spent several months at a time working overseas in contract positions.  Mother testified that the parties had an agreement that father would finish his nursing degree while having the majority of the parenting time and the mother would work overseas (where she earned between $8,000 and $15,000 per month) and get her own education.

Mother said she sent father about $2,000 per month during the months she worked overseas.  Her understanding was that once father graduated, both parties would live and work in middle Tennessee, where they could go back to sharing equal time with their daughter.

However, once the father graduated, he obtained a job in Tucson, Arizona, which was closer to much of his family and some of the mother’s family.  He sent a notice to the mother that he intended to move to Arizona with the child, and mother filed suit to stop the move and modify the parenting plan.

Prior Law

Some years ago, in an attempt to avoid much of the litigation regarding parents moving with children, the Tennessee legislature passed the Parental Relocation Statute that contains a comprehensive framework to resolve disputes involving a parent relocating with a child.

In this case, it was undisputed that even though the parenting plan said the parents would share equal time with the child, the father had actually been spending more time with the minor child.  The relevant part of the statute says:

If the parents are not actually spending substantially equal intervals of time with the child and the parent spending the greater amount of time with the child proposes to relocate with the child, the other parent may, within thirty (30) days of receipt of [notice that the other parent intends to move with the child], file a petition in opposition to removal of the child. The other parent may not attempt to relocate with the child unless expressly authorized to do so by the court pursuant to a change of custody or primary custodial responsibility. The parent spending the greater amount of time with the child shall be permitted to relocate with the child unless the court finds:

(A) The relocation does not have a reasonable purpose;

(B) The relocation would pose a threat of specific and serious harm to the child that outweighs the threat of harm to the child of a change of custody; or

(C) The parent’s motive for relocating with the child is vindictive in that it is intended to defeat or deter visitation rights of the non-custodial parent or the parent spending less time with the child.

It is the “reasonable purpose” provision that has given our courts difficulty.   Nowhere in the statute is “reasonable purpose” defined.  In 2006, a Tennessee Appellate Court decided that in this context, “reasonable purpose” meant the move “must be a significant purpose, substantial when weighed against the gravity of the loss of the non-custodial parent‘s ability ‘to participate fully in their children‘s lives in a more meaningful way.'”

Applying this language, the Trial Court in this case decided that even though the father had an employment opportunity in Arizona, and would be moving the child close to his family who could help him supervise and raise the child, in light of mother’s testimony about the parties’ agreement, the proposed move did not serve a reasonable purpose.

The decision of the Trial Court occurred in 2012.  The Court placed the child with the mother, and the case has been working through appeals ever since.

The Supreme Court Redefines “Reasonable Purpose”

When it comes to interpreting laws, there is an old rule that says that unless terms are defined in a statute, the words used are to be given their plain, ordinary meaning.  The justices of our Supreme Court reviewed the history of relocation cases and the legislative history behind the creation of the Relocation Statute.  In doing so, they could find no indication that the legislature intended “reasonable” to mean “significant” or “substantial”.  They said this:

[T]he statutory structure and legislative history both indicate an intent to make relocation cases relatively clear-cut, to permit the parent who has been spending the majority of the residential parenting time with the child to relocate with the child without court intervention, except in unusual cases in which the other parent proves that the move is vindictive, risks serious harm to the child, or has no reasonable purpose at all. …

For example, in the case at bar, the trial court factored into its decision Mother‘s assertion that, because neither parent could secure employment, she accepted work abroad with the understanding that Father intended to remain in middle Tennessee after he received his nursing education, but after obtaining the benefit of their bargain, Father decided not to seek a nursing job in Tennessee. These facts would be pertinent if the trial court were charged with deciding whether Father‘s proposed relocation was fair to Mother; it was not, however, tasked with making that determination. The testimony relied upon by the trial court in fact ranges far afield from an evaluation of the limited question of whether Father‘s stated purpose for moving to Arizona was reasonable. The rigid structure of section 36-6-108—in which best interest is reached only if and when the parent opposing the move proves one of the grounds—suggests that the ―reasonable purpose‖ ground is not intended to be a guise under which the trial court may determine whether the parent‘s decision to relocate is wise or fair or in the child‘s best interest.

Accordingly, we overrule [prior case law] insofar as it interpreted the term “reasonable purpose” in section 36-6-108 to mean “a significant purpose, substantial when weighed against the gravity of the loss of the non-custodial parent‘s ability to participate fully in their children‘s lives in a more meaningful way.”  The term “reasonable purpose” should be given its ordinary meaning.

The Court reversed the decision of the Trial Court and ordered that the child be returned to her father.  This case was released in March of 2017, which means the child had been with her mother for four years.

Conclusion

This case will have a huge impact on how relocation cases are decided in the future.  I think the Court came to the correct conclusion in regard to interpreting the law, but the facts of this case are really hard.  Mother sacrificed her time with her child in hopes that both parents would be able to finish their educations and the broken family would all live in middle Tennessee and share the parenting of their daughter.  Instead, her reward for doing what she thought was the right thing was not only losing custody of her daughter, but watching her move to Arizona.

The irony in this case is generally judges love it when people work with the other parent to do things that benefit all the parties.  In this case the mother sacrificed time with her child in hopes that working overseas would enable both parties to improve their situation and they would be able to go back to having equal time with the child.  Does a decision like this one motivate people to make short term sacrifices for long term gain, or does it make people want to take advantage of the other parent?

If you are involved in any kind of custody or parenting time dispute, you need the help of an experienced attorney.  Call me to find out how I can help you resolve your issues.

Want to read the case for yourself?  I don’t know why you’d want to do that to yourself, but here it is:  Aragon v. Aragon