Tennessee Court of Appeals Reverses Default Judgment in White County Custody Modification Case

An appellate win for local Sparta attorney Cindy Morgan.  Under Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure 55.01, a litigant is allowed to move for a default judgment when an opposing party fails to timely file an answer to the complaint or petition.  The entry of a default judgment generally has the effect of admitting the allegations in the complaint or petition.  While default judgments are allowed in custody modification proceedings, see Sweatt v. Sweatt, No. M2000-02537-COA-R3-CV, 2002 WL 31247086, at *3 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 8, 2002), Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-101 requires trial courts to “engage in a highly-factually-intensive, two-step analysis before modifying an existing parenting plan order.”  First, the trial court must determine whether a material change in circumstances has occurred since the entry of the existing parenting plan.  Second, the court must consider the proof presented by the parties in light of the factors designed by the statute.  The reason for these heightened requirements in child custody modification cases is to protect the child by making sure the modification is in the child’s best interests.

In the case, the father failed to timely file an answer to the mother’s petition to modify the parties’ parenting plan but appeared in court and requested additional time to answer the petition.  Chancellor Ronald Thurman granted the extension and gave the father a strict deadline.  Afterwards, the father hired an attorney but he did not advise the attorney about the special deadline.  Because the attorney did not know about the deadline, the father once again failed to timely file an answer, and the trial court entered a default judgment against the father, without holding an evidentiary hearing, and adopted the mother’s parenting plan in total.

Since the father defaulted, the claims in mother’s petition were admitted.  However, the mother’s complaint did not aver facts sufficient to support the trial court’s conclusion that there was a material change in circumstances or that modification of the custody plan was in the best interests of the child.  The appellate court noted that “the trial court heard no testimony, considered only Father’s limited admissions, and made no findings of fact,” which is contrary to “its duty to consider all applicable factors when making a best interest determination.”  Further, the child support worksheets in the mother’s complaint were blank, and the trial court merely imputed the parties’ income from 2009.  As the court of appeals stated, “This was error.  The entry of default did not give the trial court carte blanche to stray from the averments in Mother’s complaint or to consider alternative “facts” not contained in the record.”

Based on the above, the court of appeals vacated the trial court’s order and instructed the court to consider the parties’ circumstances as they exist as of the date of the hearing on remand.

Lawson v. Stewart, No. M2016-02213-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2017)

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