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.