Parental Relocation Statute in Tennessee

Misty D. Becker

August 14, 2017

One of the things that often frustrates me when dealing with a family law issue is the huge disparity between the clear language of a statute and the judicial interpretation of it.  One of the clearest examples of this was in the parental relocation statute, often called the move away statute.  This statute governs what is to happen if one parent wants to move the children to another state or to a location 50 miles or more away within Tennessee.

T.C.A. § 36-6-108 sets out the requirements for the parent seeking relocation.  As a general rule, these requirements must be followed exactly as spelled out in the statute.  If the nonmoving parent objects to the move, the statute also sets out exactly what that parent needs to do.  The statute then mandates that a court approve the move and sets out the guidelines which are to be used by the court in determining whether to permit the move or not.  In cases where the parents are spending substantially equal time, courts generally followed the statue.  The difficulty occurred when the nonmoving parent was not spending substantially equal time. 

In that case the statute says plainly

The parent spending the greater amount of time with the child shall be permitted to relocate with the child unless the court finds: (1) The relocation does not have a reasonable purpose; (2) The relocation would pose a threat of specific and serious harm to the child which outweighs the threat of harm to the child of a change of custody; or (3) The parent’s motive for relocating is vindictive in that it is intended to defeat or deter visitation rights of the non-custodial parent or the parent spending less time with the child.

T.C.A. § 36-6-108(d)((1)-(3).  Since the second and third reasons are more difficult to prove, most cases hinged on whether the relocation served a “reasonable purpose.”  This is pretty straight forward, but courts did not always follow that language.

Tennessee courts were routinely interpreting “reasonable purpose” to be the equivalent of a “substantial purpose.”  Notwithstanding the rather obvious difference in these standards, courts in Tennessee would routinely require proof that purpose of the move was “substantial when weighed against the gravity of the loss of the non-custodial parent’s ability to participate fully in their children’s lives in a meaningful way.”  Webster v. Webster, Tenn. Ct. App. (October 24, 2006).  This created a substantial obstacle to a parent seeking to move and created a huge problem for lawyers trying to advise their clients in these situations.

Enter the Tennessee Supreme Court.  In the case of Aragon v. Aragon, the Tennessee Supreme Court concluded that the Tennessee legislature intended “to make relocation cases relatively clear-cut” and “to permit the parent who has been spending the majority [of time] with the child to relocate with the child… .”  In order to prevent relocation, the Tennessee Supreme Court required that the nonmoving parent show “that the move is vindictive, risks serious harm to the child, or has no reasonable purpose at all.”  And with 6 simple words rationality is restored to this area of law.

In this specific case, the Tennessee Supreme Court found that moving with a child to be closer to extended family and obtaining a better work situation was a reasonable purpose.  In our practice, making things clearer and easier to explain to the client is the best of all possible purposes.