Preparing a Child for "a Life of Service": Custody Considerations in Tennessee's Woods v. Woods
Posted on 07/01/2013 at 09:14 AM by Mary Zambreno
Co-Authored By: Ryan A. Kennedy In the case Woods v. Woods, 2013 WL 2149747 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2013), the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court's ruling that the father was to be the child's primary residential parent. The mother argued that she should have primary custody because she wanted the child to remain in his private school, while the father planned to send the child to a local public school. Interestingly, Tennessee's law on determining child custody in divorce proceedings treats each parent's 'ability to instruct, inspire, and encourage the child to prepare for a life of service' as a factor. TENN. CODE § 36-6-404(b)(1). While the law does not explicitly make life-of-service preparation more determinative than any of the other factors, the fact that it is listed first among the factors may speak to its relative importance. In the Woods case, the mother argued that she was better able to meet this factor because she obtained a college degree, whereas the father was suspended from college for failing grades. The Court in Woods found that neither parent was more or less capable to prepare the child, that the proposed public school sufficed as 'a good school,' and held that each parent's respective educational experience was irrelevant. At the same time, the court held that the father's 'expos[ure of] the child to a church environment [might] help the child prepare for a life of service.' This is not the first time the Tennessee Court of Appeals has addressed children's access to religious or spiritual functions. In Hunter v. Hunter, the father received weekend visitation rights for his children, but was required to return the children to their mother each Sunday morning in time for Sunday school. 2005 WL 1469465 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005). The appellate court affirmed the lower court's residential schedule and based its order on the children's desire to attend Sunday school and the need for '[c]ontinuity and stability.' Iowa similarly uses certain factors to determine which parent should have primary physical care of a child, though none of these factors speak directly to Tennessee's 'life of service' factor. Religious instruction is considered but only insofar as it is one of the typical rights and responsibilities of a joint legal custodian. Perhaps the Iowa factor that comes closest to Tennessee's 'life of service' factor is '[t]he capacity and interest of each parent to provide for the emotional, social, moral, material, and educational needs of the child.' In a 1994 case where the father sought a change of custody in his favor, he argued that his ex-spouse was providing religious training to their two sons in order to alienate them from him and his new wife. In re Marriage of Moore, 526 N.W.2d 335, 337 (Iowa Ct. App. 1994). The Court of Appeals held that § 598.41(5)(b)'s language requires that 'both [joint custodians] should be involved in decisions about the religious instruction of the children.' While the mother's religious training went against the father's wishes, the Court refused to modify custody on the basis of the training. Instead, the Court of Appeals stated that '[i]t is not our place to prescribe what kind of instruction the children receive.' The Court then mentioned how '[n]othing prevents [the father] from being a role model for [his children] or instructing them in the golden rule or presenting them with alternative views.
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- Mary Zambreno
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