New Reasonable Purpose Standard in Tennessee Parental Relocation Case Stringer v. Stringer

relocationIn this post divorce matter, Stringer v. Stringer, the mother filed a petition to relocate with the minor child to Texas pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108.  The statute sets out two different standards for the Court to analyze depending upon whether the parents share substantially equal parenting time.  When parents spend substantially equal amounts of time with the child, “[n]o presumption in favor of or against the request to relocate with the child shall arise,” and the trial court must determine whether the relocation is in the child’s best interest. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-108(c).  However, if the parents do not share substantially equal parenting time, Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-108(d)(1) provides for a much different standard as follows:

If the parents are not actually spending substantially equal intervals of time with the child and the parent spending the greater amount of time with the child proposes to relocate with the child, the other parent may, within thirty (30) days of receipt of the notice, file a petition in opposition to removal of the child. The other parent may not attempt to relocate with the child unless expressly authorized to do so by the court pursuant to a change of custody or primary custodial responsibility. The parent spending the greater amount of time with the child shall be permitted to relocate with the child unless the court finds:

(A) The relocation does not have a reasonable purpose;

(B) The relocation would pose a threat of specific and serious harm to the child that outweighs the threat of harm to the child of a change of custody; or

(C) The parent’s motive for relocating with the child is vindictive in that it is intended to defeat or deter visitation rights of the non-custodial parent or the parent spending less time with the child.

“[W]here the parents are not spending substantially equal time with their child, section 36-6-108 includes a legislatively mandated presumption in favor of permitting the parent spending the most residential parenting time with the child to relocate with the child.” Aragon v. Aragon, 513 S.W.3d 447, 462 (Tenn. 2017).  This is an important distinction, however many Court have not applied the analysis as to which parent has the burden of proof in satisfying these factors. “The petitioner—the parent opposing relocation—bears the burden of proving grounds for denying permission to relocate.” Aragon, 513 S.W.3d at 462. If the petitioner cannot prove one of the grounds by a preponderance of the evidence, the relocating parent will be allowed to move with the child.

The Court of Appeals pointed out another clarification held in Aragon in defining “reasonable purpose” which was defined in an unpublished court of appeals decision—Webster v. Webster—to mean “a significant purpose, substantial when weighed against the gravity of the loss of the non-custodial parent’s ability ‘to participate fully in their children’s lives in a more meaningful way.’” Webster v. Webster, No. W2005-01288-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 3008019, at *14 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 24, 2006), overruled by Aragon v. Aragon, 513 S.W.3d 447 (Tenn. 2017). The supreme court’s decision in Aragon, however, expressly overruled this definition and held that “[t]he term ‘reasonable purpose’ should be given its ordinary meaning.” Aragon, 513 S.W.3d at 467.

The Court of Appeals found that the trial court inappropriately placed the burden of proof on the mother to demonstrate that there was a reasonable purpose for the relocation rather than upon the father to demonstrate that “the relocation does not have a reasonable purpose.”  More specifically, the trial court’s focus on the custodial mother’s failure to seek employment in middle Tennessee in contrast to her argument that she found suitable employment in Texas where her boyfriend resided improperly shifted from the burden of proof away from the father who opposed the relocation.  The employer in Texas provided testimony that he was interested in the mother’s ability to provide music education to children.  While the father proved that mother made no efforts to seek similar employment in middle Tennessee, he could not satisfy the standard of proof that the mother “has no reasonable purpose at all” to relocate.  The Court held “Mother has been offered a job in Texas that could lead to a full-time teaching job in Mother’s chosen profession, and Father has simply not shown that Mother’s decision to move to pursue better employment is unreasonable.” There can be a number of reasons a parent may assert as a basis for having a reasonable purpose for relocation, however only one of those reasons has to be reasonable to be allowed to relocate by the court. See Aragon, 513 S.W.3d at 466 (“[T]he parent who has been spending the majority of the residential parenting time with the child [should be permitted] to relocate with the child without court intervention, except in unusual cases in which the other parent proves that the move is vindictive, risks serious harm to the child, or has no reasonable purpose at all.”) (emphasis added).

It is rather clear that the Court felt uneasy about this result as do I.  I have seen numerous children relocated out of state several hundred miles because the mother married someone.  It is unfortunate that the fathers in those cases have to primarily see their children during school holidays and substantial summer periods.  The Court demonstrated their concern stating “we are mindful that the current standard under Tennessee law places a much more substantial burden on the parent opposing the relocation than before because it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove a negative. Regardless of our concerns about this standard, however, we are not free to depart from the Tennessee Supreme Court’s unequivocal holding.”  There was substantial proof in this case that the mother wanted to relocate to Texas to be near an old boyfriend.  In fact she was found in criminal contempt for lying about not having sexual relations with him stating that he was merely a friend.



About Roland

Roland was born in Nashville, Tennessee and raised in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. The first few years he resided in Paris, France with his mother who was French. In Hendersonville, he attended Beech Senior High School where played soccer and studied in the honors curriculum. Subsequently, he pursued two majors in political science and economics while graduating in three years.

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