Child custody cases can be extremely contentious.Tennessee prioritizes the best interests of the child over all other considerations and has established guidelines for judges in evaluating child custody cases. Experts and guardians ad litem appointed to represent the best interests of children must also follow these guidelines along with a few additional standards.
All states now use the best interests of the child standard, but Tennessee is one of only a handful of states that provides specific factors judges must examine when making child custody decisions. These include the attachment of the child to each parent, the stability provided by each parent, the parenting competence and emotional stability of the parents, and the wishes of the child. Children cannot determine where they wish to live until they reach the age of 18. However, the law encourages the court to take into account the wishes of a child who is at least 12 years old with older children's wishes weighted more heavily. Tennessee law tends to favor some variety of joint custody and both parents have equal rights to their children in custody cases.
When either parent makes an allegation of child abuse, the court must investigate the claims and determine whether there is reasonable evidence that the abuse took place. Courts must also investigate allegations of drug or alcohol abuse. Like other states, Tennessee law assumes it is not in the best interests of a child to be placed with an abusive or chemically dependent parent. However, these parents may still be granted supervised visitation and, if they undergo treatment and a judge determines they no longer pose a danger, they may then request unsupervised visitation.
Guardians ad Litem
The court may appoint a guardian ad litem -- a child advocate, usually an attorney -- who is appointed by the court to advocate for the child's best interests. Guardians ad litem must consider all of the factors judges consider and must interview both parents. Guardians ad litem who show favoritism or who interview only one parent may be removed from the case. Similarly, guardians ad litem must file a report indicating which factors they considered and how they arrived at their recommendations.
In especially contentious cases, the parties in a Tennessee divorce may call expert witnesses to advocate on their behalf. These experts are often psychologists or social workers and may be cross-examined on the witness stand. Their positions are given less deference than the evaluation of the guardian ad litem because the guardian is considered an unbiased observer. However, these experts may conduct evaluations of the child and explain why particular custody arrangements would be in the child's best interest. They must follow the standards dictated by their field and the evaluations and metrics they use must be valid.