Tennessee Law on Reversal of Legal Guardianship

by Holly Keeran

According to Tennessee state law, a parent's right to privacy, which is protected by the state and federal constitutions, includes a parent's right to care for his children. However, various scenarios can prompt an order of guardianship by the court or short-term placement by the natural parent. Based on state statute, each county in Tennessee has developed its own procedure to petition for reversal of legal guardianship. Once the appropriate paperwork is turned in, a court date will be set at which time a judge will consider each party’s argument. The current custody agreement remains in effect until the court makes its ruling. Although procedural rules differ across the state, the application of case law by the courts remains consistent.

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The Superior Rights Doctrine

Tennessee courts initially rely on the superior rights doctrine when making a determination of legal guardianship. This doctrine, drawn from the state constitution's declaration of rights, assumes that the natural parents ultimately have superior rights when seeking custody.

Validity of Court Orders

The Tennessee Supreme Court recognizes four circumstances in which the natural parents may maintain their superior rights to custody, thereby successfully reversing an order of guardianship. As affirmed by the court, these scenarios occur when: (1) a court order transferring custody does not exist; (2) the order transferring custody was obtained by fraud or without notice to the parent; (3) the court determines that the order transferring custody is “invalid on its face;” and (4) the natural parent agreed only to an informal and temporary arrangement.

Ancillary Case Law

Additionally, the state Supreme Court has ruled that if a natural parent voluntarily hands over custody “without knowledge of the effect of that act” a violation of the superior rights doctrine results and modification of the custody agreement is in order. Conversely, “absent [such] extraordinary circumstances” parents seeking to modify a valid custody order, even if the order resulted from a voluntary guardianship arrangement, should not expect immediate and undisputed success solely by means of the superior rights doctrine.

Substantial Threat of Harm

The court must balance its primary concern of keeping the constitutional rights of the natural parents intact while also considering the welfare of the child. Per a state Supreme Court ruling, "a natural parent may only be deprived of custody of a child upon a showing of substantial harm to the child." During the hearing, the court will inquire as to the conduct of the natural parents, for example, whether they've fulfilled obligations set forth in the custody order, completed a substance abuse program, or found a job or proper housing. Other relevant incidents, such as showing up to a visitation intoxicated, getting arrested, or displaying violent tendencies, should also be reported. Ultimately, the court's determination as to whether a reversal of guardianship will result in a “substantial threat of harm” is based on evidence presented by the guardian, natural parent, or other pertinent witnesses, such as counselors or child welfare workers.