Some states, including Tennessee, see joint custody as the ideal arrangement for children of divorced parents. State laws govern divorce and custody, not municipalities, so courts lean toward shared parenting whether you live in Newport, Nashville or Memphis. If you want joint custody, you'll probably have it – and a Tennessee judge may order it even if you don't want it.
Tennessee courts will decide custody in a divorce only when parents can't or won't reach an agreement. The state facilitates agreements by mandating parenting classes as part of the divorce process, followed by mediation where a third party attempts to help parents negotiate a workable parenting arrangement. If you and your spouse reach an agreement for a joint parenting plan, you can submit the parenting plan to the court. The plan should detail every aspect of how you're going to share responsibilities for your children. Tennessee courts provide a required form you can complete, so you don't have to wonder if you're leaving anything out. If you want joint custody but your spouse opposes it, you can each provide your own parenting plan to the court. A judge will issue a temporary custody order for the duration of your divorce proceedings; she will then decide a permanent custody arrangement at a divorce trial based on your suggested parenting plans and other factors.
If you go to trial, the judge will most likely order some form of joint custody. This arrangement is called "shared parenting" in Tennessee, and the state passed legislation in 2011 requiring judges to order it whenever possible. The statutes require the "maximum participation possible" for both parents in their children's lives. In practical terms, however, this doesn't always work out to an exact 50/50 division of parenting time due to school and scheduling issues. One of you, the primary residential parent, will probably have the children overnight at least 285 days of the year. The other, called the alternate residential parent in Tennessee, will have the children the rest of the time. With this arrangement, you both contribute to making important parenting decisions regarding your children's upbringing, while day-to-day decisions are typically made by the parent with whom the children are living at the time. Tennessee gives children over the age of 12 a voice as to which parent they would like to spend more time with.
Shared parenting only works when both parents are fit, and Tennessee's legislation takes this into consideration. However, unfitness must be proved at trial by a preponderance of evidence. Behavior that might sway a judge from ordering equal, or roughly equal, parenting time to both parents includes physical or sexual abuse, an inability to act as a responsible parent because of a drug or alcohol problem or mental illness, or a criminal conviction. These are "limiting factors" under Tennessee law, and a judge might take one of several approaches when dealing with them. Courts may allocate decision-making responsibility to only one parent and limit physical time with the impaired parent. The court can order counseling, or supervised visitation for the impaired parent where another responsible adult is present at all times. Only in severe cases of parental misbehavior is the court likely to curtail any contact between the impaired parent and children, and if the parent is rehabilitated, parenting time is likely to resume.
A parent might be perfectly fit at the time of divorce -- but then things change. If your shared parenting arrangement no longer works, you can go back to court and ask a judge to change it. If you were the parent of alternate residence, you can ask the court to name you as the parent of primary residence and limit or supervise your children's time with your ex. You have the burden of proof, however, to show the court that something significant has changed in your ex's home since your divorce. You'd have to establish that it's no longer reasonable for your children to spend significant time there.