Tennessee Supreme Court issues unanimous opinion on parental relocation

The court focused on whether a divorced father had reasonable purpose to move out of state with a child.

All the Tennessee Supreme Court justices joined in a March 2017 opinion that significantly impacts the legal standards and procedures applied when a divorced parent wants to move away with a child a substantial distance from the other parent. Overruling a previous Tennessee Court of Appeals case, the Supreme Court in Aragon v. Aragon clarified the meaning of a parent having a "reasonable purpose" to move away with a child.

The details of Aragon

This case involved divorced parents with one child who lived primarily with the father. He wanted to take the child with him and relocate to Arizona to accept a job. His extended family lives there as does some of the mother's extended family, so he and the child would have the support of relatives there. The mother opposed the child being allowed to move to Arizona with the father.

The trial court and the appeals court agreed with the mother, but the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the father had shown a reasonable purpose for the relocation and that the mother had not met her burden of showing a reasonable purpose to deny the father the right to move with their daughter.

Tennessee's parental relocation law

The Supreme Court analyzed aspects of the detailed state parental relocation statute to come to its decision. The law applies when a parent wants to relocate with a child either out of state or more than 50 miles from the other parent within Tennessee. The parent seeking to move must follow strict notice requirements (unless the court excuses them for "exigent circumstances") laying out the details of the proposed move, including the parent's reasons for proposing it. The nonmoving parent has 30 days from receiving the notice to file a petition with the court opposing the proposed move.

The statute states that if the parents spend unequal amounts of time with the child, the parent who is with the child the most "shall be permitted" to relocate, unless the opposing parent can prove any one of three reasons against it:

  • The parent proposing the move has no "reasonable purpose."
  • The move would "pose a threat of specific and serious harm" to the child that is more grave than any harm that a change of custody to the other parent would likely bring.
  • The parent who wants to move with the child is acting vindictively with intention to lessen the time the other parent could spend with the child.

In Aragon, the issue was whether the mother had proven the first reason: that the father had no reasonable purpose to move away. The court overruled a previous case that said a reasonable purpose is "one that is significant or substantial when weighted against the loss to the parent opposing the relocation."

After considering the legislative intention behind the law, the Supreme Court said that instead, "reasonable purpose" should be given its "natural and ordinary meaning." Because his stated purposes for moving of taking a job and living near extended family were reasonable and the mother had not proven otherwise, the statute says that he "shall be permitted" to move with the child.

If the mother had shown that the father had no reasonable purpose, the court would then have looked at whether the move would be in the child's best interest.

Attorney Patricia Best Vital of Vital Law Office & Dispute Resolution Services in Chattanooga represents clients in the Hamilton County area and surrounding regions of Tennessee and Georgia in parental relocation matters, whether proposing a relocation or opposing one, including negotiation, mediation and litigation.