Custody Determination and the Permanent Parenting Plan
Throughout Tennessee, courts are often tasked with rendering an initial child custody determination regarding one or more minor children between parents. These custody decisions – which are ultimately enshrined in the law in the form of court orders issued by a Tennessee court of competent jurisdiction – may occur between parents regardless of whether they are married. At the conclusion of a case where child custody is at issue, the courts in Tennessee will enter a Permanent Parenting Plan, setting out the parenting schedule between both parents for their children, and making provisions for the payment of child support, health insurance, and other important matters pertaining to the parties’ child(ren).
Once a Tennessee court has made a child custody decision, a parent displeased with the custody decision can appeal. However, if there is a significant change in the circumstances surrounding the child custody decision such that the Permanent Parenting Plan needs to be modified in order to continue to serve the best interests of the child or children, then a parent may seek a modification of the Permanent Parenting Plan by a court of competent jurisdiction. Circumstances giving rise to a basis for modification are myriad and may include one or both parents relocating from the original jurisdiction where the child custody decision was originally made.
Modifying a Previous Custody Decision
When it comes to modifying previous custody decisions, a question that frequently arises is whether the court that made the original custody decision should be the court that makes the decision on whether the parenting plan should be modified. For example, consider the situation of a married couple going through a divorce in Tennessee with two minor children. As part of the divorce, the Tennessee court entered a Permanent Parenting Plan providing for the custody arrangements for their two children between both of the parents. Years later, both of the parents have remarried and relocated to two different states outside of Tennessee, and one of the parents wants to modify the Permanent Parenting Plan that was entered in the Tennessee divorce. In this scenario, is the Tennessee court that handled the parties’ divorce and made the initial child custody determination able to hear the case regarding modifying the parties’ Permanent Parenting Plan? Even if the Tennessee court has jurisdiction to continue to hear the case for modification of the custody schedule, is the Tennessee court really the best venue to hear the case, or should the case be transferred to a more convenient forum?
Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA)
In order to answer these questions, it is important to examine the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (the “UCCJEA”). The UCCJEA has been adopted by every state in the United States except for Massachusetts, and is also in effect in Washington, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Although there are several important laws that may have bearing on the legal issues surrounding interstate custody disputes, the UCCJEA is arguably the single most important law when it comes to interstate custody disputes and the rules surrounding which court(s) will ultimately have the power to hear and decide upon a modification of a previously issued custody order from the court of a different state. Under federal law, a child custody determination made by the court of one state is generally required to be enforced by a court of a different state.
When TN Has Jurisdiction to Make Initial Custody Determination
Under the UCCJEA, a Tennessee court has jurisdiction to make an initial child custody determination only if:
- Tennessee is the “home state” of the child on the date of the commencement of the proceeding, or was the “home state” of the child within six (6) months before the commencement of the proceeding and the child is absent from Tennessee but a parent or person acting as a parent continues to live in Tennessee;
- A court of another state does not have “home state” jurisdiction, or a court of the “home state” of the child has declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that Tennessee is the more appropriate forum, and
- The child and the child’s parents, or the child and at least one parent or person acting as a parent, have a significant connection with Tennessee other than mere physical presence; and
- Substantial evidence is available in Tennessee concerning the child’s care, protection, training, and personal relationships;
- All courts having jurisdiction under the first two options above have declined to exercise jurisdiction on the ground that a Tennessee court is the more appropriate forum to determine the custody of the child(ren); or
- No court of any other state would have jurisdiction under the criteria specified in any of the other options above.
Provisions for Court Jurisdiction Under the UCCJEA
Importantly, under the UCCJEA, subject to a couple of important exceptions, when a court makes an initial child custody determination, that court generally retains exclusive, continuing jurisdiction to modify the child custody determination until the child reaches adulthood. Certain provisions of the UCCJEA govern jurisdiction to modify custody and stipulate that a court of a “new” state may not generally modify a custody determination made by a court of the “earlier” state unless certain conditions are met. Generally speaking, a court other than the court originally issuing the child custody determination will have jurisdiction to modify the previous custody determination under emergency circumstances or when the child(ren), the child(ren)’s parents, and any person(s) acting as a parent no longer reside in the state that made the initial child custody determination. A court of a “new” state may also have jurisdiction to modify a prior custody determination if the issuing state determines that it no longer has exclusive, continuing jurisdiction under the UCCJEA, and that the court of the “new” state would be a more convenient forum.
Why You Should Care
When it comes to interstate child custody disputes, the question of jurisdiction is often a threshold matter that must be addressed before any other issues can be handled. Moreover, the question of jurisdiction under the UCCJEA can be extremely complicated, and can have important effects on the adjudication of a custody case that could last for months or years. Due to the paramount importance of the well-being of children and the impact the adjudication of these issues can have on a child custody case, it is crucial that you promptly seek the advice of knowledgeable and experienced legal counsel if you are involved in an interstate or emergency custody dispute.
If you are involved in an interstate or emergency custody dispute, Cole Law Group’s Nashville family law attorneys can help. Give us a call at (615) 490-6020 to schedule a consultation.