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Stanley v. Stanley

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

December 30, 2016


          Session May 4, 2016

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Davidson County No. 06D2339 Phillip R. Robinson, Judge

         This appeal arises from a father's petition to relocate with his minor children. The father sought to relocate to Oklahoma in order to work on his family's farm, which he hoped to eventually inherit. The father, as the parent spending the greater amount of time with the children, sent the children's mother a notice of intent to move. The father then filed a petition to relocate with the minor children to Oklahoma. The trial court concluded that, because he was the petitioner, the father bore the burden of proof on whether the move was for a reasonable purpose. After both parents presented their proof, the trial court denied the request to relocate. The court found the father lacked a reasonable purpose for the proposed move. Because we conclude the burden of proof rested with the mother, we vacate and remand for further proceedings.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Vacated and Remanded

          Thomas F. Bloom, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Colin Richard Stanley.

          Gere L. Beason, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Sonya Mae Stanley.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Andy D. Bennett and Thomas R. Frierson, II, JJ., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Sonya Mae Stanley ("Mother") and Colin Richard Stanley ("Father") married in California in 1998. Later, the couple moved to Oklahoma where two children, Jace and Savannah, were born of the marriage. In 2005, the family moved to Tennessee.

         On August 26, 2008, the Circuit Court of Davidson County, Tennessee, entered a final decree that awarded Mother a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. The permanent parenting plan order named Mother the primary residential parent, but the parents split time with their two minor children equally.

         In 2011, the court modified the parenting plan. After finding a material change in circumstance, the court designated Father as the primary residential parent. The modified parenting plan granted Father 255 days and Mother 110 days of parenting time.

         Father sent Mother a notice advising that he intended to move back to Oklahoma with the children, which Mother acknowledged receiving on March 2, 2015, by certified mail. On March 11, 2015, Father, apparently proceeding under the mistaken belief that Mother was attempting to avoid receipt of the notice, filed a petition to relocate with the children. In the petition, Father explained his intention to work on a farm owned by his mother and step-father ("Paternal Grandparents") in Oklahoma.

         Within thirty days of her receipt of the notice mailed by Father, Mother filed an "Answer to Father's Petition to Move Children to Oklahoma and Mother's Counter-Petition in Opposition to Father's Relocation with Children and Counter-Petition to Modify Parenting Plan/Change Custody or in the Alternative to Change Residential Parenting Schedule." Mother alleged that Father lacked a reasonable purpose for the move and that he had made misstatements in his notice letter. Mother also alleged that, since the order modifying the parenting plan, there had been a material change of circumstance justifying either a change of primary residential parent or in parenting time.

         A. Proof at Trial

         The court held a trial on August 4, 2015. During the opening statement of Father's counsel, the court remarked that the burden of proof was on Father to establish a reasonable purpose. In the words of the court, "The burden is . . . always on the petitioner, and had the mother filed a petition in opposition, the burden would be on her to prove no reasonable purpose." In response to the court's remarks, counsel for Father indicated she was prepared to meet that burden.

         Father's proof consisted of several witnesses, including himself, his new wife, his step-father, and the two children.[1] Mother's proof consisted of only two witnesses, herself and her new husband.

         Father testified that he expected to inherit the family farm owned by Paternal Grandparents and located in Pocasset, Oklahoma. On the farm, Paternal Grandparents breed horses and dogs for resale. Father explained his desire to move to Oklahoma in order to assist Paternal Grandparents with the day-to-day duties associated with running the farm. According to Father, ...

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