Tennessee custody and visitation law focuses on a child’s best interest

State law sets out 15 factors for judicial consideration.

In a Tennessee divorce when children are involved, custody and visitation matters must be decided. The legal standard for custody decisions is that the arrangement must be in the child's best interest.

Legal custody is the power to make major life decisions for the child like those involving education, health, religion and so on. Physical custody is the right and responsibility to provide a residence and daily care, and to meet the material needs of the child. Both legal and physical custody can be jointly held by both parents or solely by one of them. When one parent has physical custody or has the child the majority of the time, the other parent usually has liberal visitation.

In a Tennessee divorce with children, the parents often can negotiate a resolution to their legal issues, including custody and visitation. The negotiated custody arrangement is set out in detail in a document called a parenting plan, which is submitted to the court in the divorce proceeding for approval and inclusion in the final decree.

If the couple cannot agree on a parenting plan, the court can order (on its own or if either parent requests it) that the parents enter into dispute resolution proceedings to work out a plan. If they have not reached agreement by 45 days before the divorce trial date, each of them is required to submit his or her own proposed parenting plan to the judge for consideration.

Tennessee courts have broad powers to create custody and visitation orders. Tennessee law specifically states how the judge is to determine the child's best interest.

First, if it is in the child's best interest, the judge must try to involve each parent as much as possible in the child's life, considering the locations of their homes, the child's need for stability and other relevant factors.

Second, to determine the child's best interests, the judge must consider all relevant factors, including those in a specific list of 15 if they apply:

  • Nature of both parent-child relationships, including whether one parent has been the primary caregiver
  • Each parent's history of and potential for meeting parental responsibilities, including adherence to previous court orders related to parenting arrangements and willingness to encouraging a relationship with the other parent, if it is in the child's best interest
  • Refusal to attend parent education seminars ordered by the court
  • Parental disposition to provide the child with material, medical, educational and other necessary kinds of care
  • Extent that a parent has acted as the primary caregiver
  • Parent-child "love, affection, and emotional ties"
  • Child's developmental stage and emotional needs
  • Parental "moral, physical, mental and emotional fitness" to parent
  • Other relationships like those with siblings and other relatives, and the child's involvement with "physical surroundings, school, or other significant activities"
  • Importance of continuity and how long a child has been in a "stable, satisfactory environment"
  • "Physical or emotional abuse" of the child, the other parent or anyone else
  • "Character and behavior" of anyone who lives with or visits a parent and that person's interactions with the child
  • "Reasonable preference" of a child if at least 12 years old; judge may hear younger child's preference upon request, but older children's preferences are normally given greater weight
  • Parental work schedules
  • Any other relevant factors

Custody issues can be complex and cause heated disputes. Advice and counsel of an experienced lawyer can be essential.

Attorneys at Hartzog & Silva, PLLC, in Franklin, represent clients in custody and other family law matters in the greater Nashville area.