Often, the longest-lasting effects of a divorce involve the children of the marriage – each parent has a right to see his or her children, but each child also has the right to be safe, happy, and in a stable environment. “Custody” is really a concept with two major components: physical custody and legal custody. The physical custodian of a child has responsibility regarding the child’s living arrangements, food, clothing, and the like; the legal custodian of a child has the responsibility (and right) to make decisions regarding the child’s health, education, and general welfare.
Legal and physical custody can each be conferred entirely upon one parent or can be split as the court determines is in the best interest of the child. The two types of custody do not have to be split in the same way – the child may live with one parent 80% of the time, but both parents have an equal authority to make decisions. Theoretically, one parent could have the child 100% of the time but have zero decision-making power.
The overwhelming motive force behind the court’s decision is the best interest of the child. Even the most agreeable divorce is difficult on a child, but the goal is to put the child in the best situation possible in light of the circumstances. The court, in making a custody ruling, does not have to follow the wishes of either parent, but should consider the age of the child and the accustomed roles of the parents to ensure that the family will be comfortable with the arrangements indefinitely.
If there are multiple children, the courts generally prefer to keep the custody the same for all children in a relationship, but are not bound to do so. The best interest of each child individually will be considered in making the decision.
Once a decision is made by the court, it is difficult to change the schedule or support amount without showing a major change in situation outside the control of one or both parents.
This is just a brief overview of child custody in Tennessee. The physical and legal custody granted to each parent vary with the situation. Further information about family law issues can be found here.