Tennessee Supreme Court Ruling on Parental Relocation; Aragon v. Aragon

In this post-divorce litigation, the Tennessee Supreme Court granted permission to appeal to address the standard for determining what constitutes a “reasonable purpose” for parents relocation with the parties child under Tennessee’s parental relocation statute, Tennessee Code Annotated 36-6-108.  In this case, the father spent the majority of residential parenting time with the parties child. He sought to move the child to Arizona because he had secured an advantageous job in an area where he and the child lived near his parents and his extended family and have their support, and where he and the child would live near some of the mother’s extended family as well. The trial court held that the father did not have a “reasonable purpose” for the relocation. In a divided opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed. The dissent in the Court of Appeals questioned interpretation of the term “reasonable purpose” used by the majority, which originated in a prior Court of Appeals decision, Webster v. Webster, that’s construed the term “reasonable purpose” to mean one that is significant or substantial when weighed against the loss to the parent opposing the relocation. The Tennessee Supreme Court overruled Webster insofar as it misconstrues the meaning of the term “reasonable purpose” as used in Tennessee’s parental relocation statute.

The court noted “that the Webster court’s view of the term “reasonable purpose” encourages courts to consider evidence that has little to do with the proposed purpose of the move and more to do with the perceived overall fairness of the primary residential parent’s decision to relocate or whether the move is in the child’s best interest. For example, in the case at bar, the trial court factored into its decision Mother’s assertion that, because neither parent can secure employment, she accepted work abroad with the understanding that Father intended to remain in middle Tennessee after he received his nursing education but after obtaining the benefit of their bargain, Father decided not to seek a nursing job in Tennessee. These facts would be pertinent if the trial court were charged with deciding whether Father’s proposed relocation was fair to mother; it was not, however, tasked with making that determination. The testimony relied upon by the trial court in fact ranges far afield from an evaluation of the limited question of whether Father’s stated purpose for moving to Arizona was reasonable. The rigid structure of section 36-6-108 — in which the best interest is reached only if and when the parent opposing the move proves one of the grounds — suggests that the reasonable purpose ground is not intended to be a guise under which the trial court may determine whether the parent’s decision to relocate is wise or fair or in the child’s best interest.”

Under the natural and ordinary meaning of the term “reasonable purpose”, the court held that the father stated a reasonable purpose for relocating to Arizona with the parties’ child and the mother did not carry the burden of establishing a ground for denying the father permission to relocate with the child. Under Tennessee Code Annotated Section 36-6-108(d)(1), the parent spending the greater amount of time with the child shall be permitted to relocate with the child unless the court finds that the parent opposing the relocation has proven one of the enumerated grounds (1. the relocation does not have a reasonable purpose, 2. 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 3. the parent’s motive for relocating with the child is vindictive). Because the mother did not prove a ground to deny permission to relocate, the court reversed the trial court’s denial of permission for the father to relocate to Arizona with the child, and also reversed the trial court’s modification of the parties’ parenting plan.

This important decision should provide needed clarity to primary parents with a greater share of parenting time when considering a parental relocation. No longer does the moving parent have to meet the Webster standard requiring a significant purpose and one that is substantial in light of the parental rights of the alternate parent. Rather, the moving parent need only show some reasonable purpose for moving.



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