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Steakin v. Steakin

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

January 9, 2018

JENNIFER STEAKIN
v.
DANIEL STEAKIN

          Session August 29, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Sumner County No. 2009-CV-628 Dee David Gay, Judge

         This appeal arises from the modification of a parenting plan in a post-divorce action. The original 2010 parenting plan awarded the parties equal parenting time. When the parties' only child started school in 2012, the parents informally modified the parenting schedule so that Father had parenting time every other weekend and the parents split the holidays equally. In 2015, Mother commenced this action seeking court approval of the informal parenting schedule. The trial court granted Mother's petition to modify and adopted Mother's proposed parenting plan. Father appeals, claiming the trial court erred by, inter alia, failing to make findings of fact as required by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 52.01, miscalculating Father's parenting time, awarding Mother sole education and non-emergency healthcare decision-making authority, ordering the child to attend a certain elementary school, awarding Mother a judgment for her attorney's fees, and assessing post-judgment interest at 5.5%. Finding no error, we affirm the trial court in all respects. We also find that Mother is entitled to recover reasonable and necessary attorney's fees incurred on appeal pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-5-103(c).

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Affirmed

          James Lee Widrig, Megan Ross Bain, and Tarsila Reybitz Crawford, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Daniel Steakin.

          Georgina Kay Hughes, Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, for the appellee, Jennifer Steakin.

          Frank G. Clement Jr., P.J., M.S., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Richard R. Dinkins and W. Neal McBrayer, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          FRANK G. CLEMENT JR., P.J., M.S.

         Jennifer Steakin ("Mother") and Daniel Steakin ("Father") are parents to one minor child. The parties divorced in 2010, and the Final Decree of Divorce adopted a Permanent Parenting Plan, which afforded the parents with equal parenting time. Under the plan, Father had the child three days one week and four days the next. The parties followed this schedule until the child started school in August 2012. Because the parents were living in different counties at the time and Father's work schedule had changed, Father requested that they modify the parenting schedule to allow Father parenting time every other weekend during the school year, alternate weeks in the summer, and share holidays equally. Mother agreed to the schedule Father proposed, and they followed this schedule without issue, and without court approval, over the next three years.

         On April 2, 2015, Mother filed a Petition to Modify Permanent Parenting Plan and Child Support to obtain court approval of the plan they had been following since the child started school in 2012. She alleged that Father's relocation from Gallatin to Portland, Tennessee, changes to Father's work schedule, and the fact that Mother and the minor child lived in Wilson County where the child attended school, constituted material changes in circumstances that warranted the modification. Mother also relied on the fact that the parties had not been following the parenting plan since the parties' minor child started school in August 2012.

         Under Mother's proposed parenting plan, Mother would have 277 days of parenting time per year, and Father would have 88 days. Specifically, Father would continue to have parenting time every other weekend from 6:00 p.m. on Friday until 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, the parents would alternate holidays, equally divide fall and spring breaks, and divide the Christmas break so that the child would spend the first period of the break with one parent, defined from the day and time school dismissed through December 24 at 6:00 p.m., and then spend the remainder of the break with the other parent. In addition, the parents would alternate weeks during the summer. The proposed plan essentially memorialized the parenting schedule the parties had been following for the past three years without issue. Mother also requested she be granted sole decision-making authority on the child's education and non-emergency healthcare decisions.

         The petition to modify was heard September 29, 2016, and the court heard extensive testimony from both parents. Mother testified that other than summer break, her proposed schedule is what the parties had already been following. And in fact, Mother's proposed summer schedule actually gave Father more time than he had been receiving.

         Mother requested that the trial court order their child to continue attending W.A. Wright Elementary in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, where the child had attended for the past two years. Even though the child was not zoned for this school, Mother testified that this was in the child's best interest because the child is able to ride the bus home from school to his grandmother's, whose house is located in that school zone. The child's grandmother provides after-school care for the minor child. At trial, Father made no objection to the child being ordered to attend the school.[1]

         Mother also requested sole decision-making authority for the child's education and nonemergency healthcare decisions. She testified in great detail about her involvement in the minor child's education and healthcare stating, in pertinent part,

I'm there every day. I go to the school functions, to meetings. I take him to school. I'm there after school. I do the homework. I enroll him in school and take him shopping for school supplies. I'm the consistent one that's there.

         Mother discussed the progress the child has made in school, and the ongoing IEP meetings she attends to support the child's special education needs. Mother also testified extensively about doctor's appointments she has attended over a long period of time to address her child's ADHD diagnosis, and Mother emphasized the child's anxieties brought on from not having a normal, consistent schedule. Mother reasoned that she is in a better position to make decisions on the child's behalf regarding his education and nonemergency healthcare needs because she is the parent most often present in the ongoing care needs of their child. Mother conceded that all other decision making would remain joint, as specified in both the original 2010 and proposed parenting plans.

         Father did not propose an alternate parenting plan, nor did he object to Mother's calculation of days in the proposed parenting plan, or Mother's proposed Holiday schedule. Nevertheless, Father maintained that it was in the child's best interest for the parents to have equal parenting time, as specified in the original 2010 parenting plan, despite the fact that Father was the one who initially requested a modification to the every-other-weekend schedule the parents have followed for three years. Father objected to granting Mother sole authority for the child's education and nonemergency healthcare decisions, contending that all decision making should remain joint as specified in the parties' 2010 parenting plan.

         In its ruling from the bench and as directed in the Final Order entered December 7, 2016, the trial court adopted Mother's proposed parenting plan, which essentially memorialized the schedule the parents had followed for the past three years. The modified parenting plan awarded Mother 277 days per year, and 88 days per year to Father. The plan specified that the parents would evenly divide the fall, spring, Christmas, and summer breaks. The trial court also ordered a modification of child support, granted Mother sole decision-making authority on education and non-emergency healthcare decisions, and awarded Mother attorney's fees. Father timely appealed.

         Analysis

         Father raises a plethora of issues on appeal.[2] We believe the issues should be considered in the following fashion to afford a more appropriate analysis of each:

1. Whether the trial court failed to make sufficient specific findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.
2. Whether a material change in circumstances was established.
3. Whether the trial court conducted an appropriate best interest analysis.
4. Whether the trial court abused its discretion in crafting the Permanent Parenting Plan that awarded Mother sole authority for education and nonemergency healthcare decisions.
5. Whether the trial court erred in its calculation of the days Father is responsible for the care of the minor child in setting child support.
6. Whether the trial court erred in awarding Mother her attorney's fees and assessing interest at 5.5%.

         As for Mother, she seeks to recover her attorney's fees and costs incurred in this appeal.

         I. Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law

         Father asserts that the trial court erred by not making sufficient specific findings of fact and conclusions of law as required by Tenn. R. Civ. P. 52.01.

         It is well settled that in bench trials, courts must make findings of fact and conclusions of law to support their rulings. Rule 52.01 of the Tennessee Rules ...


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