What Is an Unfit Parent in Tennessee Law?

Custody battles are especially difficult, for both parents and children. In some cases, the court may find one parent is unfit and may terminate parental rights. Usually, parental rights are ended before a parent is deemed unfit. In most cases, Tennessee courts aim to do what is in the best interest of the child, and try and encourage both parents to be part of the child’s life. In some cases, though, being deemed unfit is the result of a custody battle.

The Different Types of Custody Decisions

There are two different types of custody that apply to a child. Physical Custody refers to where a child is physically living and which parent is tending to the needs of the child. Legal custody is about making medical, school decisions, religious decisions and other long-term issues for the child. In both cases, parents may have sole or joint custody. It’s possible to have a situation where both parents have joint physical custody, but one parent has legal custody. Knowing the difference between these categories will help you understand what is truly happening with your court case and your child’s future.

How Do I Know A Parent is Unfit?

While it may seem simple, the criteria for a judge to decide that a parent is unfit is actually quite complex. Being able to say beyond a reasonable doubt that a parent is unfit is sometimes extremely difficult, as being deemed unfit is more than simply being an uninvolved or bad parent. Below are four categories that may assist you in determining whether or not one parent may be deemed unfit by Tennessee divorce courts.

Has the parent in question abused you or the child? 

Again, there needs to be proof of this allegation. Things like police reports or previous domestic violence charges would fall under this category. If one parent has abused the other parent, the child, or someone else in the household, this may be proof to determine an unfit parent.

Has the parent abandoned the child? 

This is more than forgetting to change a diaper or leaving a child alone to go to a grocery store. This category usually entails a parent doing absolutely nothing, often for multiple years. Usually, it also comes with a willful refusal to be involved with the child’s life. Again, if you can prove abandonment, the parent in question may be deemed unfit.

For example, say the father moves out of state. The father makes no attempt to be involved with the child and makes no arrangements for custody. If the mother went to court to deem the father unfit due to abandonment, the mother may have a case to gain sole physical and legal custody.

This example isn’t so simple though. If the father moved out of state to work to provide for the child, and the mother refused visitation, then the case may not be as simple as proving one parent is unfit. Every case is different, and ultimately deeming an unfit status is a last resort of the courts.

Has the parent failed to provide for the child? 

This question gets a bit deeper than simply asking if the parent in question has paid child support. This question is asking whether or not the parent has fed, clothed, housed, or supported the child with any basic needs. Arguing this question to deem a parent unfit may be difficult should you only be arguing the parent has not paid child support.

Does the parent use drugs chronically? 

This question isn’t asking whether or not a parent is on pharmaceutical drugs prescribed for a true medical issue. Here is a bit more obvious: That the parent in question has a substance abuse issue the child should not be around.

What if there’s something else? 

Sometimes, something a parent has done or said may not fall neatly into one of the above categories. The court may consider other issues, but it’s important to know that a bad parent will likely still be allowed to have a relationship with the child. Parents who put a child in danger will likely not be allowed time with the child.

What Is In The Best Interest of the Child?

Tennessee courts will always be acting in the best interest of the child. While this seems clear on paper, there is little legal guidance on what actually constitutes best interest. There is an inherent need for stability as well as allowing the child every available opportunity to connect with their parents.

Other things may be considered when making decisions in the best interest of a child. For example, one parent may be given primary joint physical custody to prevent the child from leaving half siblings they have bonded with or to allow the child to continue having connections in a certain community.

The courts will also consider the child’s preference. If the child wants to live with one parent over another, the courts may consider their voice when making determinations about custody arrangements.

What Do I Do Now?

Child custody is a challenging experience and can be confusing for many parents. Experienced family law attorney Hunter Fowler can help you navigate the process and create a plan that is best for you and your children. Attorney Hunter Fowler makes the needs of your family his top priority and does the work to understand your unique situation and craft strong legal solutions.

Get in touch today and take the first step to protecting you and your child for the future to come.