Child Custody and Visitation Laws in Tennessee

Your child's best interests are at the heart of any custody proceeding.

Custody Basics

Tennessee law encourages judges to create a custody order that maximizes each parent’s time and involvement in a child’s life. Your custody award will designate each parent’s right to physical and/or legal custody of the child. In some cases, one parent may receive sole physical and legal custody. Yet in other cases, a judge may find that shared (also called “joint”) physical and legal custody is most appropriate.

Legal custody allows a parent to make educational, medical, religious and other major decisions on the child’s behalf. For example, the parent with legal custody may choose where a child attends school or may request that the child is baptized in a certain faith. In most cases, parents will share legal custody unless it wouldn’t serve the child’s best interests. Nevertheless, even if parents share legal custody, the custodial parent (parent with primary physical custody) will have the final say in decisions involving the child.

The parent with physical custody lives with the child. Major responsibilities are attached to a physical custody award, including a parent’s obligation to provide food, housing, clothing and day-to-day care for the child. A judge may award parents joint physical custody. However, even when parents share physical custody, they will rarely have an exactly equal amount of time with the child. Your custody award will depend on your family’s unique needs.

Who Decides Custody?

Ultimately, a judge has the final say on any custody decision because a judge will determine whether the parents’ agreement serves the child’s best interests or will create a custody award that does. This doesn’t mean that parents are powerless. In fact, Tennessee courts encourage parents to submit proposed parenting plan schedules or reach their own custody agreements. In many cases, a judge will order parents to attend mediation and try to resolve custody issues before setting a case for trial.

At mediation, parents can control the outcome of their custody case. A mediator is a neutral third-party who can help facilitate settlement between parents. A mediator can’t settle a case for you, parents decide the terms of any mediated settlement. A judge will review a proposed custody settlement to ensure that it meets the child’s needs. When parents aren’t able to reach a custody agreement, a judge will decide custody after a formal hearing or trial.

What Does a Judge Consider When Deciding Custody?

Your family’s overall circumstances will impact a child custody proceeding. Specifically, a judge will assess the following factors to determine your child’s best interests:

  • the child’s relationship with each parent
  • each parent’s past and potential involvement in parenting responsibilities and day-to-day care for the child
  • each parent’s willingness and ability to provide for the child’s emotional and physical needs
  • each parent’s physical and mental health
  • the child’s physical and emotional needs
  • the child’s relationship with siblings, step-siblings, and extended family
  • the child’s ties to the local community and to his or her current school
  • the child’s reasonable preference (if at least 12 years old)
  • each parent’s employment status and employment obligations, and
  • any other factor the court deems relevant.

Even young children may have a say when it comes to custody, but an older child’s wishes carry more weight than a younger child’s wishes. A judge will consider the child’s preference along with other circumstances that impact the child’s best interests. Tennessee law also allows a judge to evaluate how a parent’s disability will affect the parent’s ability to care for a child. However, the court can’t automatically presume that a disabled parent is unfit to exercise custody over a child. A family’s overall circumstances are crucial to a custody decision.

What’s in a Custody Order?

A custody order will address all custody issues including:

  • legal and physical custody
  • parenting time
  • child support
  • holiday visitation
  • child exchanges and transportation between exchanges
  • relocation, and
  • any other issues that might be relevant in your case.

Your order should be very specific and spell out each parent’s holiday visitation schedule and right to summer vacation visits from now until the child reaches age 18. A detailed custody order will help avoid future custody battles because the decisions are already made. For example, you and your ex should not have to argue about where and when child exchanges will happen if the issue is clearly resolved in the custody order.

What Can I Do If I Don’t Approve of How My Child Is Being Raised?

Once a judge has issued a custody order, parents are required to follow the order’s terms until it’s modified or the child reaches age 18. Although you may not agree with your ex's parenting style, there’s not a lot you can do about your ex's discipline strategies or bedtime routine with your child unless those actions are actually harming your child or you have other grounds for modifying custody.

You can file a motion to modify custody when there’s been a material change in your family’s circumstances such as a remarriage, the current custody order isn’t serving the child’s best interests, or if it’s been a long time since the original custody order was entered. The same factors that were relevant in an original custody action apply in a modification proceeding.

You should contact your attorney immediately if you have significant concerns about your child’s well-being in the other parent’s care. A parent who contributes to an unsafe environment for the child or who neglects the child’s basic needs may lose custody.

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