Because child custody disputes often become contentious and emotionally charged, Tennessee has established specific laws governing the adjudication of these disputes. Judges treat each family as an individual unit and attempt to discern the best custody arrangement for each child. However, these arrangements are governed by state law and cannot be based on a judge's whims or prejudices.
Child's Best Interests
All states use a "best interests of the child" standard to determine where a child should live and how to structure parenting time. Only a few states, including Tennessee, set out specific factors judges must consider when determining a child's best interests. These include the environment provided by each parent, a child's attachment and bonding to each parent, the age and desires of the child, the parenting skills of each parent, and who the child's primary caregiver is. Any history of abuse or drug addiction by either parent creates a rebuttable presumption that the parent is not a suitable caregiver for the child. Tennessee does not give gender-based preference to either parent.
Types of Custody
There is a distinction in Tennessee law between legal and physical custody. Legal custody refers to decision-making authority -- for example, the authority to decide where children will go to school or which doctor they'll see -- and Tennessee strongly favors joint legal custody. The parent with physical custody is the person who provides the children's primary home. Tennessee courts prefer to choose one parent as the primary physical custodian to maintain consistency in the child's life and schedule. The non-custodial parent is given parenting time with the child. The amount and schedule of parenting time varies with the needs of the family and child.
Tender Years Doctrine
The tender years doctrine existed in Tennessee until 1997. This standard dictated that babies and very young children should reside with their mothers except in extraordinary cases. Although this standard is no longer applied in Tennessee, presumptions in favor of the mother may still influence decisions in custody cases involving babies. Because the mother is frequently the primary caretaker of very young children, she may be at an advantage in custody cases.
Tennessee law allows the parent with primary physical custody -- if there is one -- to move out of the state. The parents must establish an agreement that maintains the child's relationship with the non-custodial parent and, if the parents are unable to do so on their own, a judge may create a parenting plan for them. If the non-custodial parent can prove that the custodial parent is moving out of state to interfere with visitation, the other parent may not be permitted to move out of state.
In contentious custody cases, judges are authorized to appoint a guardian ad litem -- a child advocate who is usually an attorney -- to represent the best interests of the child. The guardian can investigate, file reports and make recommendations about specific custody plans. Tennessee law requires each parent to submit a proposed parenting plan before filing for custody or visitation. Parents should also be aware that they can change their custody plan after a final order is entered if they both agree to the plan and the plan appears to be in the child's best interests.