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Tennessee Supreme Court Decides on Major Issue Concerning Parenting Plan Modification

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently decided on a major issue concerning parenting plan modification. The decision addresses the issue of which court can hear a post-divorce petition seeking modification of a parenting plan depending on the allegations contained within the Petition.

In Bradley James Cox v. Laura Nicole Lucas, Father filed a Petition in the trial court for emergency relief and modification of the parenting plan. Mother, after some time, filed to dismiss the Orders for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Mother argued that Father's Petition included allegations of dependency and neglect and should have been filed in the juvenile court. The trial court denied Mother's motion, and Mother appealed to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals reversed concluding that the Father's petition "contained assertions that were tantamount to allegations of dependency and neglect." Cox v. Lucas, No. E201702264COAR3CV, 2018 WL 5778969, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Nov. 2, 2018), appeal granted (Feb. 22, 2019), rev'd, No. E201702264SCR11CV, 2019 WL 2279226 (Tenn. May 29, 2019). Essentially, the Court of Appeals found that the divorce court could not hear any Petition containing allegations that could be dependency and neglect allegations and parties must file those actions in the already overloaded juvenile courts. Father appealed.

While this matter was pending appeal, the General Assembly amended Tenn. Code Ann. §37-1-103 to provide, "notwithstanding this section, nothing in subdivision (a)(1) shall be construed to preclude a court from exercising domestic relations jurisdiction pursuant to title 36, regardless of the nature of the allegations, unless and until a pleading is filed or relief is otherwise sought in a juvenile court invoking its exclusive original jurisdiction. Act of April 18, 2019, 2019 Tenn. Pub. Acts ch 167 (emphasis added).

The Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately followed the April 18, 2019, amendment made to title 36 and held that the divorce court (circuit and chancery courts in Tennessee) have jurisdiction to hear the post-divorce modifications unless one of the parties files the action in the juvenile court to invoke its exclusive and original jurisdiction over cases concerning dependency or neglect.

In sum, if you are seeking a modification of a parenting plan because of concerning behaviors of the other parent or fear for your child's safety, contact an experienced family law attorney to navigate you through the process so that you ensure your case is heard in the proper court.

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