Tennessee Custody and Parenting Time Overview

Tennessee courts emphasize the shared responsibilities of parenting. As such, the court process focuses on encouraging cooperation over ushering parents toward trial.

In most cases, the courts order parents to mediation before allowing them to proceed to trial. If parents reach a settlement, their agreements are written into a parenting plan and with a judge's approval, it becomes the plan parents must follow.

If there's no agreement, the judge makes the final decision based on arguments and evidence presented at trial.

Keep in mind that every case is unique and each county court has their own practices and procedures.

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Legal and residential custody

In Tennessee, there's legal and residential custody.

Legal custody grants the authority to make decisions for the child. This can be held by one parent (sole legal custody) or both parents (joint legal custody).

If both parents can make decisions, the judge or parents themselves can break down these rights by topic. For example, one parent may make educational decisions, while the other makes medical decisions. Day-to-day decisions are handled by whichever parent the child is with.

Residential custody refers to the time the child spends with each parent, as laid out in a parenting time schedule. In Tennessee, all residential arrangements in which both parents get to see the child are referred to shared parenting, regardless of the time split.

The parent who the child spends more than 50 percent of their time with is called the primary residential parent. The alternative residential parent gets visits, which can be supervised if it's unsafe for the child to be alone with them.

It's also possible for the child to spend equal time with each parent. One is still named the primary residential parent in order to give the child a main address. If the judge decides the case, they name whoever best meets the factors below as the primary parent. Parents who reach an agreement designate the primary parent themselves.


During mediation, a neutral third party leads parents in private discussions on child custody, child support and other matters of dispute.

Judges typically order all parent who can't reach an agreement to attend mediation. Parents are responsible for all costs and can select their own mediator. If they can't agree on a mediator, the court chooses.

If parents reach an agreement in mediation, they or their lawyers draft a parenting plan and other settlement documents and submit them to the court for approval.

Parenting plans

Parenting plans are part of every Tennessee child custody case.

The judge may order each parent to submit a proposed plan, and consider the proposals when making a final decision. Parents can still submit proposals if the judge doesn't order them to. This could help the judge understand the arrangement you're seeking.

To conclude the case, the judge signs off on a plan. In a case involving unmarried parents, this is called the final custody order. In a case involving married parents, it's called the Permanent Parenting Plan.

Factors in custody decisions

The judge makes their custody decision based on what's best for the child, considering factors such as:

  • The importance of maintaining continuity in the child's life
  • Where each parent lives
  • The child's bond with each parent
  • Each parent's ability to financially and emotionally support the child
  • The child's preference

The judge will only hear the preference of a child 12 or older. This happens through a private interview in the judge's chambers or the child's testimony at trial. The opinions of children who are 14 or older hold more weight in the final decision.

The court may appoint a guardian ad litem to look out for the child's interests. The GAL conducts an investigation, and writes a report on what they observe related to the factors above. This report is shared with the court but cannot be used as evidence at trial. The GAL can testify to their findings.

Length of custody proceedings

The length of your case depends on your case type, your circumstances and the court's calendar.

Divorcing and separating parents can't start trial or have a settlement approved before their case is 90 days old. Because of this, contentious divorces can last over a year, while a settlement can be finalized in 90 days.

Custody-only cases that settle can resolve within a few weeks, while those that go to trial may take several months. You can expect to be in court a little longer if you need to establish the child's paternity.

Costs to expect

There are many costs associated with a court case.

First, you'll have to pay to open a case. Filing fees for divorce and separation cases cost between $200 and $400. For custody and paternity, costs range from $100 to $160. If you cannot afford to pay, you can file a Request to Postpone Filing Fees. In addition, you may have to pay a sheriff or process server to serve the defendant.

Parents who choose to attend mediation or are ordered by the court to go have to pay for the mediator's services. Divorcing parents have to pay around $45 for a parenting class. (This requirement may be waived if parents reach a settlement.) Any case can involve a guardian ad litem or custody evaluation, which can each cost thousands.

Attorney fees vary based on the attorney's location and experience. Hourly fees can be anywhere from $150 to more than $500. You'll have to pay part up front to reserve the attorney's services.

To save money, you can choose limited representation, meaning the attorney only handles certain aspects of your case and you handle the rest. Another option is to try an alternative dispute resolution method. If neither works for your finances, you can apply for pro bono (free) attorney representation. Or, as a last resort, you can represent yourself.

Representing yourself

Due to the intricacy of the law, it's highly recommended you hire an attorney to handle your case. Even if you have a settlement ready, you should hire a legal professional; they can look over the agreement to ensure it covers all the bases and is formatted correctly.

If you choose to represent yourself, utilize the resources available to parents without lawyers, such as law libraries. Familiarize yourself with Title 9 of the New Jersey statutes. Keep in mind that the court won't give you preferential treatment and you'll be held to the same standards as an attorney.

Foreign language speakers

All court proceedings are conducted in English. For litigants who need someone to translate for them, Tennessee has a Court Interpreter Program. Interpreters are available for numerous languages including Chinese, French, Russian, Spanish and Thai.

Staying organized

The process of deciding custody requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft multiple parenting time schedules, track your time with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of that in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, an expense tracker and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

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