Agreeing to child custody changes outside of court may affect future proceedings to modify a court-ordered parenting plan. A January 9, 2017 Tennessee child custody case before the Court of Appeals of Tennessee illustrates the complexities of this issue. The appeal arose out of the modification of a parenting plan in a post-divorce action.
The parents in the case had divorced in 2010, and a permanent parenting plan was adopted as part of the divorce decree. Under that plan, the parents were awarded equal parenting time. When the child started school in 2012, however, the parents informally modified the parenting schedule, since the parents were living in different counties. Their arrangement provided the father with parenting time every other weekend, with holidays and school breaks split equally. In 2015, the mother sought court approval of their informal arrangement by filing a petition to modify. When the trial court adopted the mother’s proposed plan, the father appealed.
In Tennessee, the modification of an existing parenting plan requires the parent who seeks the change to prove that a material change of circumstances exists that affects the child’s best interest. Unlike the process to switch the primary residential parent, the threshold to establish a material change of circumstances is very low when the court is merely changing a parenting schedule. As a result, a material change of circumstances may include, but is not limited to, a failure to adhere to the parenting plan under the relevant statute.