Your Role in the Parenting Process During a Knoxville Divorce
Skilled Tennessee divorce attorneys explain how to advocate for your children
For couples with children, divorce creates a new set of parenting challenges. Divorcing parents must understand that some aspects of their relationship with their children will change. When you’re dealing with kids, the courts put the well-being of the children above all else. And, because they’re still children, decisions made regarding the kids can affect them for years after the divorce.
Here in Tennessee, divorcing parents must attend a four-hour parenting education seminar before the court will grant a divorce. This class covers some important issues parents should learn and apply to their lives in working with their spouse/ex-spouse regarding their children.
The Knoxville family law attorneys at LaFevor & Slaughter have the answers to all your questions around co-parenting after divorce. We work with all types of families and all types of people, and invite you to contact us. We pride ourselves on helping ease this difficult experience for you and your children.
Do my spouse and I have to go through mediation before our divorce?
Another piece of the parenting-and-divorce puzzle is mediation. In Tennessee, you are going to have to go to mediation because Tennessee state law requires it. Only under certain special circumstances can mediation be waived (domestic abuse being the main reason). Settling a case in mediation is a whole lot cheaper than taking a case to trial, which is probably the reason that most divorce cases get resolved at mediation.
In order to get to mediation, both attorneys will come to an agreement to pick a mediator. A mediator is a third party whose job is help you and your spouse come to agreement about child support and child custody matters, among other things. This neutral party is responsible for getting a mutual agreement and should not pick sides in the case.
Typically you and your lawyer will sit in one room while your spouse and their lawyer sit in another. The mediator will go back and forth between the rooms, attempting to help you and your spouse resolve your case.
Our lawyers can help you pick a mediator to deal with your particular situation. Mediators for divorces are approved by the Tennessee Supreme Court procedures and rules, so a Rule 31 Certified Mediator is a lawyer who can handle mediation.
What happens if mediation doesn’t work and we can’t agree on a parenting plan?
Mediation is almost always your best-case scenario. But sometimes, depending on the relationship between you and your soon-to-be ex, you just may not be able to work together, and that’s just the way it is. In that case, you may have to have the court decide. Judges really don’t like making important decisions like this just based upon a trial “quick snapshot” of the family, so they’ll try to learn a bit more.
There are other methods a judge can use to learn more about the two of you as parents, and to decide on disputes about which parent should assume the role of primary residential parent.
Guardians ad litem in Tennessee
One method used is the appointment of a guardian ad litem (“GAL”). Usually a GAL is a lawyer, but can also be a mental health professional or a social worker. The GAL conducts interviews with the children’s parents, teachers, neighbors, and daycare providers, as well as with other people who regularly spend time with the kids. The GAL attorney acts like to an attorney for the children – working in their best interests only.
If the guardian ad litem isn’t an attorney, then they’ll write a report with their recommendations and submit it to the court for approval. Most judges won’t read the report until the trial begins. If you or your spouse object to the report, you can ask the GAL questions during testimony. In contested divorces, the GAL may also be deposed by one or both attorneys. After going over the recommendations, you and your spouse may be able to reach a compromise. If not, the court will evaluate all the testimony and documentation to make their decision.
Another method the court might use in its child custody decision-making process is the use of a forensic psychologist. Different situations lead to the use of a psychologist. Be warned, though, if you or your child are already seeing a therapist, they’ll likely object to testifying about their own patients in court. Instead, the court can order an independent child custody evaluation by an experienced and independent court-appointed psychologist. Typically, an evaluation includes psychological and emotional evaluations of the family, including anyone else living with the children on a regular basis.
Watch out, though – sometimes an ex will hire a forensic psychologist as an expert witness to help support their position. Most often this occurs if one parent accuses the other of some form of mental health issue, like bi-polar disorder or depression. As the accused parent, you certainly have the right to consult with a psychologist as well. This psychologist provides their expert opinion on any allegations against you, as well as defend your ability to act as the primary parent to your kids.
In our experience at LaFevor & Slaughter, judges tend to trust the opinion of the court-appointed psychologist over experts you or your spouse may bring in on your own. We can consider your divorce case and see what might be your best option for a successful outcome.
What happens during a custody evaluation in Tennessee?
When the court orders a psychologist to provide an expert opinion, the psychologist performs a custody evaluation. Note that these can be expensive and delay your divorce, as these evaluations take time. If you or your spouse allege that the other has substance abuse problems, mental illness, or is an emotional or physical abuser, the court will almost definitely order a custody evaluation.
The American Psychological Association provides guidelines for its members who conduct these evaluations. We recommend you take a look, as this info can be very helpful in the event your case involves a custody evaluation. Usually, the independent court-appointed psychologist conducts the testing and evaluation on the parents and sometimes the children. They’ll interview the kids, and also write and issue a written report that both sides can review. The judge might read the report, and/or the psychologist testifies in court.
Will my kids have to testify during our divorce trial?
Doubtful… but possible. Almost all psychologists and judges advise against calling a child as a witness in a divorce case. One of the most difficult – but sadly common – situations arises when the children are the only witnesses to a parent’s violent, destructive, or offensive behavior.
Even though a child’s testimony would be important evidence to demonstrate a parent’s poor behavior, we can’t think of many experiences more traumatic for a child than to be asked a question where the answer is going to be used to hurt one or both parents. Many lawyers, including us, agree and will refuse to call a child as a witness unless the matter involves severe physical or emotional abuse.
With an older child, though, a judge or lawyer might call them to the stand to express their opinion about which parent should have primary custody. Now, this next part is important. Our Knoxville attorneys have been doing this for years, and we’ve noticed that many divorcing parents mistakenly believe that at a certain age, a child has the right to decide with which parent they’ll live. Actually, there is no such age and a child can’t pick the parent.
In Tennessee, the rule is that at age 12, if the child expresses an interest in testifying on the issue, the judge may hear the testimony of the child and their preference for primary residential parent. However, adults make the final decisions about the children. No judge will allow the preference of a child alone to determine the outcome of a contested custody case. However, the older the child, the more likely the judge is to consider their opinion and preferences. The child’s opinion is just one factor in the decision-making process.
What about child support?
Child support determination is another crucial important part of the divorce process for parents. After the two of you, or the court, determine who has primary custody, next up is child support. Child support must either be mutually agreed-upon or set by the court. If you want to estimate what child support might be like, consider both of your incomes. Then refer to Tennessee’s Child Support Calculator and Worksheets. You may need to adjust depending on the individual circumstances of the case.
Our attorneys can help you with all aspects of child custody and support during your divorce. We also advocate for members of the military with family law matters.
Knoxville family law attorneys helping you protect your children
At LaFevor & Slaughter, we care about our clients – and we care about their children. That’s why we offer practical guidance and support to help parents protect their children. To learn more about the divorce process, or for a consultation with one of our attorneys, call us at (865) 637-6258 or fill out our contact form today.