Justia Family Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Tennessee Supreme Court
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In this parental termination case, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court terminating Father's parental rights, holding that the trial court misapplied the missing witness rule and in applying the doctrine of unclean hands to Father and that the evidence of abandonment was not clear and convincing.The trial court terminated Father's parental rights based on a finding of abandonment by willful failure to support, willful failure to make reasonable or consistent support payments, and willful failure to visit and further found that termination was in the child's best interests. In reaching its conclusions, the trial court applied the missing witness rule and the doctrine of unclean hands. The court of appeals reversed, concluding, among other things, that the trial court erred by applying the missing witness rule in a non-jury trial. The Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals' judgment with the exception of its holding on the missing witness rule, holding (1) while the missing witness rule may apply in a non-jury trial, the trial court misapplied the rule in this case; (2) the trial court erred in applying the doctrine of unclean hands to Father; and (3) there was not clear and convincing evidence that Father abandoned the child. View "In re Mattie L." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reinstated the trial court's judgment terminating Mother's parental rights on the basis of the statutory factor enumerated in Tenn. Code Ann. 36-1-113(g)(14), holding that the statute is ambiguous and that In re Ayden S., No. M2017-01185-COA-R3- PT, 2018 WL 2447044, 7 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 31, 2018), is overruled.Section 36-1-113(g)(14) requires a person seeking termination of parental rights to prove by clear and convincing evidence that a "parent or guardian has failed to manifest, by act or omission, an ability and willingness to personally assume legal and physical custody or financial responsibility of the child." In In re Ayden S., the court of appeals interpreted this language as requiring proof that a parent was both unable and unwilling personally to assume legal and physical custody or financial responsibility of a child. In In re Amynn K., No. E2017-01866-COA- R3-PT, 2018 WL 3058280, 14 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 20, 2018), the court of appeals construed the statute as requiring proof that a parent was either unable or unwilling to personally assume legal and physical custody or financial responsibility of a child. The Supreme Court held that the In re Amynn K. interpretation best effectuated legislative intent and thus reversed. View "In re Neveah M." on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and reinstated the judgment of the chancery court dismissing Plaintiff's appeal from an order of protection "in nature of writ of error," holding that the writ of error is no longer a viable method of appeal.A general sessions court entered an order of protection prohibiting Plaintiff from having contact with Defendants, his ex-wife and child. Plaintiff subsequently filed an "appeal in nature of writ of error," attaching an incomplete copy of the couple's Texas divorce decree. The chancery court dismissed the action for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding the appeal untimely and the method of appeal obsolete, and determining that the petition for enrollment was defective on its face. The court then awarded Defendants attorney's fees and costs. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the chancery court (1) correctly concluded that the writ of error is no longer a viable method of appeal and dismissed the appeal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction; (2) correctly dismissed Plaintiff's request to enroll the Texas decree because he provided an incomplete copy of the decree; and (3) correctly awarded Defendants attorney's fees. View "New v. Dumitrache" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals reversing the circuit court's denial of Mother's motion seeking relief available under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60.02(3) as to Father's post-divorce petition seeking modification of the parenting plan adopted in the parties' final divorce decree on the grounds that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, holding that the circuit court retained subject matter jurisdiction of the post-divorce petition.The court of appeals ruled that Father's petition alleged facts that were tantamount to an unruly child claim, over which juvenile courts have exclusive original jurisdiction pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. 37-1-103. Thereafter the General Assembly amended section 37-1-103 to expressly provide that a circuit court retains subject matter jurisdiction under the circumstances until and unless a pleading is filed or relief is sought in juvenile court and the juvenile court’s exclusive original jurisdiction is invoked. The Supreme Court reinstated the judgment of the circuit court, holding that because the General Assembly applied the amendment to certain cases, including this appeal, and because no pleading was filed in juvenile court, nor was the juvenile court's exclusive jurisdiction invoked in any other manner in this case, the circuit court retained subject matter jurisdiction of the post-divorce petition. View "Cox v. Lucas" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals reversing the circuit court's denial of Mother's motion seeking relief available under Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60.02(3) as to Father's post-divorce petition seeking modification of the parenting plan adopted in the parties' final divorce decree on the grounds that the circuit court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, holding that the circuit court retained subject matter jurisdiction of the post-divorce petition.Father's petition alleged facts that were tantamount to an unruly child claim, over which juvenile courts have exclusive original jurisdiction pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. 37-1-103. After the Supreme Court granted this appeal the General Assembly amended section 37-1-103 to expressly provide that a circuit court retains subject matter jurisdiction under the circumstances until a pleading is filed in juvenile court or the juvenile court's exclusive jurisdiction is invoked in any other manner. The Supreme Court reinstated the judgment of the circuit court, holding that because the General Assembly applied the amendment to section 37-1-103 to all cases pending on its April 18, 2019 effective date, including this appeal, and because the juvenile court's jurisdiction was not invoked, Mother was not entitled to relief from the circuit court's orders adjudicating Father's petition. View "Minyard v. Lucas" on Justia Law

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A trial court, after the abatement of a divorce action, may remedy a violation of the statutory injunction imposed by Tenn. Code Ann. 36-4-106(d)(2), which prohibits parties after a divorce complaint is served from changing the beneficiary on any life insurance policy that names either party as the beneficiary, by considering the equities of the parties.After suing Bryan Olson for divorce, Jessica Olson changed the beneficiary on her life insurance policy from Bryan to her mother, Rose Coleman. After Jessica died, Rose collected the life insurance benefits. Rose then sued Bryan for grandparent visitation. Bryan responded that he did not oppose visitation and countersued to recover the life insurance benefits. The trial court (1) awarded the insurance benefits to the Olsons’ child, finding that Jessica had intended to substitute the child as the beneficiary, and (2) awarded Rose grandparent visitation. The court of appeals (1) awarded Bryan the life insurance benefits based on Jessica’s violation of the statutory injunction, and (2) reversed the visitation award. The Supreme Court reversed in part and remanded, holding (1) the Olsons’ divorce action abated when Jessica died, and the statutory injunction Jessica violated became ineffective; and (2) Rose was not entitled to court-ordered grandparent visitation absent Bryan’s opposition to visitation. View "Coleman v. Olson" on Justia Law

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A trial court, after the abatement of a divorce action, may remedy a violation of the statutory injunction imposed by Tenn. Code Ann. 36-4-106(d)(2), which prohibits parties after a divorce complaint is served from changing the beneficiary on any life insurance policy that names either party as the beneficiary, by considering the equities of the parties.After suing Bryan Olson for divorce, Jessica Olson changed the beneficiary on her life insurance policy from Bryan to her mother, Rose Coleman. After Jessica died, Rose collected the life insurance benefits. Rose then sued Bryan for grandparent visitation. Bryan responded that he did not oppose visitation and countersued to recover the life insurance benefits. The trial court (1) awarded the insurance benefits to the Olsons’ child, finding that Jessica had intended to substitute the child as the beneficiary, and (2) awarded Rose grandparent visitation. The court of appeals (1) awarded Bryan the life insurance benefits based on Jessica’s violation of the statutory injunction, and (2) reversed the visitation award. The Supreme Court reversed in part and remanded, holding (1) the Olsons’ divorce action abated when Jessica died, and the statutory injunction Jessica violated became ineffective; and (2) Rose was not entitled to court-ordered grandparent visitation absent Bryan’s opposition to visitation. View "Coleman v. Olson" on Justia Law

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Charity Spires and Plaintiff-Appellee Kenneth Spires married and had one child, Uriah. A month after Uriah was born, Kenneth abandoned Charity and the child. Though the Spires did not divorce, Kenneth never returned to the marital home. Charity died in an automobile accident involving Defendant Haley Simpson. Custody of Uriah was awarded to his maternal grandmother, Constance Ogle, who served as administrator of Charity's estate. Kenneth filed this wrongful death lawsuit against Simpson and her parents. Ogle sought to intervene. While she acknowledged Kenneth was the Decedent's surviving spouse, Ogle argued he should be disqualified from prosecuting the lawsuit because he owed child support arrearages, and because the abandoned the Decedent and Uriah. While Ogle’s motion to intervene in the wrongful death lawsuit was still pending, a Chancery Court entered an order of adoption, permitting the Decedent’s brother, Captain (now Major) Dana Trent Hensley, Jr., M.D., to adopt Uriah. The adoption order terminated Kenneth's parental rights as to Uriah. Ultimately the trial court granted the motion to intervene, dismissed Kenneth from the suit and substituted Ogle and Major Hensley as plaintiffs. Kenneth appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that as the surviving spouse, Kenneth was not disqualified from commencing and maintaining the wrongful death action, notwithstanding the child support obligation. Because Kenneth was not statutorily disqualified from bringing the action, the Court of Appeals held that he was the proper plaintiff and that Kenneth and Uriah were each entitled to half of the settlement proceeds under the laws of intestate succession. Based on Kenneth's stipulation that he owed almost $72,000 in child support for four other children, the appellate court determined that his entire portion of the lawsuit proceeds had to be paid towards his outstanding child support obligations through the Child Support Receipting Unit. The Tennessee Supreme Court held the prohibitions in Tennessee Code Annotated sections 20-5-107(b) and 31-2-105(b) were intended to apply only to cases in which the “parent” who seeks to recover in a wrongful death lawsuit was a parent of the decedent child, and the child support arrearage is owed for the support of that decedent child. Neither statute was applicable under the facts of this case. Consequently, the Court reversed and vacated the decisions of the trial court and the Court of Appeals applying Sections 20-5-107(b) and 31-2-105(b) in this case. The Court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Spires v. Simpson" on Justia Law

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In this custody dispute, the Supreme Court held that the court of appeals erred in reversing the judgment of the juvenile court and awarding Mother custody of the parties’ minor children and erred in ordering the change in custody prior to an opportunity for the Father to appeal to the Supreme Court.In 2013, Father and Mother agreed to a modification of an existing parenting plan. Father later learned that Mother had relocated from Ohio to Nevada with the parties’ minor children, where she was employed as a prostitute. The juvenile court granted Father’s motion for an emergency temporary custody order and a temporary restraining order and designated Father as the primary residential parent. The juvenile court upheld the magistrate’s determination, finding a material change in circumstances. The court subsequently concluded that changing the primary residential parent from Mother to Father was in the best interest of the children. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the court of appeals committed reversible error by failing to accurately apply the standard of review; and (2) the juvenile court properly applied the statutory factors governing a best interest analysis, and its conclusion was not an abuse of discretion. View "C.W.H. v. L.A.S." on Justia Law

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In this wrongful death case, the court of appeals erred by vacating the trial court’s order and remanding the case for further proceedings without reviewing the correctness of the trial court’s ruling on the decedent’s child’s Tenn. R. Civ. P. 60.02 motion.The decedent’s mother, in her capacity as her unmarried son’s next of kind, filed this wrongful death suit, seeking damages. The case was settled and dismissed. Almost twenty months later, the decedent’s alleged minor child filed a Rule 60.02 motion to set aside the order of dismissal and to be substituted as the plaintiff. The trial court denied the motion on the grounds that it was not timely filed. The court of appeals vacated the trial court’s ruling, ruling that the Rule 60.02 motion was not ripe for adjudication until the trial court conclusively established the child’s paternity. The Supreme Court reversed and reinstated the judgment of the trial court, holding (1) the court of appeals erred by focusing on issues surrounding the child’s paternity rather than reviewing the correctness of the trial court’s ruling on the Rule 60.02 motion; and (2) the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ruling that the Rule 60.02 motion was not timely filed. View "Hussey v. Woods" on Justia Law