Divorcing parents have many issues to resolve including parenting schedules, child support, health insurance and various other important matters concerning their children. Generally, Tennessee courts will approve and enforce Parenting Plans negotiated and agreed to by divorcing parents. However, the Tennessee Court of Appeals has determined that at least one major issue – where the kids will go to school if a parent relocates – cannot be determined by agreement of the parents.
In Self v. Self, a 2015 decision of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the Court of Appeals addressed an agreement by divorcing parents that their children would go to school in a particular school district in the event either parent relocated. In that case, the parents of three children in Lincoln County agreed in their Permanent Parenting Plan, which was approved by the trial court that granted the divorce, that the children would attend school in Lincoln County even if one of the parents moved from Lincoln County.
A few years after the divorce, the mother planned to move to Davidson County and she wanted to take the children with her. The father objected based on the language in their agreed Permanent Parenting Plan that provided the children would stay in the Lincoln County Schools. The trial court denied the mother’s request to relocate the children to Davidson County because of the parties’ agreement in their Parenting Plan. Mother appealed to the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals determined the school district clause in the Parenting Plan was unenforceable. The Court ruled that contractual provisions concerning the care, custody and control of children lose their contractual nature upon divorce because the courts are charged with determining the best interests of the children without regard to the parents’ contractual agreements. Therefore, the provision in the Parenting Plan that effectively prohibited either parent from relocating with the children outside of Lincoln County was unenforceable. Instead, whether the mother should be allowed to relocate with the children would be determined by a best interests analysis pursuant to the Relocation Statute (Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-108). Ultimately, while the Court of Appeals held the school district clause was unenforceable, the Court nevertheless upheld the trial court’s denial of the mother’s request to relocate with the children based on the Court’s best interest analysis – which, ironically, took into consideration the parents’ unenforceable agreement about school districts.
As a practical matter, negotiating the details of a Parenting Plan is often painstaking, and when divorcing parents agree on something concerning their children, it would seem a welcome relief for the courts to have one less issue to resolve. But, when it comes to contractual provisions in Parenting Plans about which schools the children will attend if a parent relocates, the Tennessee Court of Appeals has made it clear that such agreements are not enforceable.
The bottom line – divorced parents in Tennessee cannot enforce contractual agreements concerning where their children will attend school if one of the parents relocates. The solution? Be creative in drafting Parenting Plans to describe why the parents prefer their children attend a particular school district and why it is in the children’s best interests to attend a certain school district even if one of the parents moves out of that district. This will make it more likely, although not certain, that the courts will prevent the relocating parent from taking the children out of that school district.
By: Michael Carter