Joint vs. Sole Custody in Tennessee – A Guide

As humans, we aren’t always the best at sharing, and nowhere is this more evident than in a divorce, where everything from property division to alimony has the tendency to spark a heated territory battle. 

Unfortunately, however, an individual’s parental rights don’t disappear, just because their marriage does, and custody is one thing divorcing parents may have to learn to share, if they ever split up. 

In this article, we’ll talk about how the courts handle joint vs. sole custody in Tennessee, and how much sharing you’ll likely have to do, once you divorce. 


What is Custody?

To start off, custody refers to the legal relationship a parent (or guardian) has over their child, encompassing many basic parental rights, including the authority to make decisions on their child’s behalf.

In family law, these custody rights are divided into two main categories: 

  1. Legal Custody—the right to make-decisions on behalf of a child, and to influence how they will be raised.
  2. Physical Custody—the right to have direct, in-person facetime with a child, including the duty to meet their physical needs. 

Both of these categories are inherent to the role of parenthood, and do not disappear, just because you get divorced. However, things may still look differently on the other side of things.  


Dividing Rights Upon Divorce

The reason parental powers don’t exist the same way, post-divorce, is because the unity in your marriage is broken. 

While married, Tennessee courts operate under the presumption that you and your spouse are on the same mental wavelength, when it comes to raising your child. However, once you file for divorce, that all changes. 

Now that you no longer want to live under the same roof, the court can no longer assume that you and your spouse agree about the direction of your parenting. And because there are so many different ways to raise a child, they have to spell things out a little more thoroughly than they did when you were married. 

By formalizing everything into a cohesive parenting plan, the court ensures that the rights of each parent are being protected, and that each bears an equal share of responsibility for their child’s care, post-divorce.

This is where joint vs. sole custody comes into play. 


Joint vs. Sole Custody in Tennessee

In dividing up parental rights, Tennessee courts have one of two options: 

  1. Joint Custody—parental authority is shared between parents.
  2. Sole Custody—all the authority resides with a single parent. 

In a custody dispute, each category of custody is addressed separately, with legal powers divided either jointly or separately, and physical powers handled the same way. This means you could end up with sole authority in one area of custody, but have to share it in the other.  

Here’s a closer look at each of the possible scenarios. 


Joint Legal Custody

Parents in a joint legal scenario each have an equal say in their child’s upbringing. Here, both must pass off on all major decisions regarding their child, and if one proceeds without consent, that individual could be held in contempt of court. 

Most of the time, joint legal means that the power is shared equally between parents, but occasionally, the court will give one side tie-breaking authority (usually the custodial parent).


Sole Legal Custody

If a parent has sole legal custody, then they are under no obligation to consult the child’s other parent regarding major decisions. In the eyes of the law, theirs is the only authority that matters. 

This arrangement essentially strips the child’s other parent of any right to influence their child’s life. It’s a drastic move for a court to take, and isn’t something that they’ll generally do, unless it’s very clearly in the child’s best interest. 


Joint Physical Custody

In a joint physical scenario, both parents are spending the maximum amount of time possible engaging in their child’s life. In a perfect world, this would mean equal shares, with the child living exactly 50% of their time with each parent—and hey, sometimes the court can make it work that way. Most of the time, however, the division ends up slightly unequal.

Does this mean the arrangement isn’t joint? Not necessarily. 

While the exact definition of what qualifies as joint physical custody is ill defined in Tennessee law, other states define it as any arrangement that results in something greater than a 30/70 split. 

Hence, if your child lives with you more than 30% of the time, there’s a good chance the court considers your arrangement joint physical. 


Sole Physical Custody

In contrast to joint physical, sole physical custody occurs when the child spends the majority (if not all) of their time living with one parent, with very little visitation on the other side. By the standards of other states, this occurs when one parent has less than 30% of the parenting time. 

Sole physical custody doesn’t necessarily mean that one side is a bad parent, though. Indeed, many parents who don’t have physical custody are still fully active in managing their half of legal custody rights. 

Sole physical custody is common in situations where one parent lives out of state, or else travels a lot for work or military obligations. Other times, the parent might be living in state, but is too busy in a high-powered career to dedicate the time required for a joint physical arrangement.

Best Interest of the Child

Tennessee courts don’t have a set formula for assigning joint vs. sole custody. As convenient as that might sound, it actually wouldn’t be very practical in a real-life scenario, since no two families are alike. 

Instead, your judge will weigh a number of individualized factors, to determine which division of custody will be in the best interest of your child. 

The best interest of the child is the driving force behind every decision made in Tennessee family court that involves a child. In other words, your child’s long-term happiness and well-being are what matters most to your judge, not your own personal wishes. 

That being said, Tennessee courts have long held that a child’s best interest is served when they’re able to cultivate a loving, healthy relationship with both parents, whenever possible. Hence, barring some unusual circumstances (such as abuse or domestic violence), you will most likely end up sharing custody with your ex, post-divorce. 


Child Custody Attorney in Tennessee

For parents, nothing is more terrifying than staring down your child’s future, and having no clue what it might hold. As parents ourselves, we understand these fears, which is why we, at Byrd Law, hope you’ll trust us to fight for your custodial rights. 

If you have more questions about joint vs. sole custody in Tennessee, we want to hear from you. Call the Byrd Law team at (423) 304-6827, or contact us online, and let us help ensure your child’s best interests are met. 

Author Bio

Sam Byrd is the owner and managing attorney at The Law Office of Sam Byrd. With hands-on experience in divorce, family law, criminal law, and DUI/DWI cases, Sam has been serving clients in Tennessee since 2012. He graduated with a J.D. from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 2012 and holds a B.S. in Legal Studies from the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2009.

He began his legal career as a paralegal, working under his father’s guidance. Prior to that, Sam served in the United States Marine Corps as a member of the 2/7 Weapons Company stationed at 29 Palms, California.

Sam has received several accolades for his work, including being recognized as a Rising Star in Divorce & Family Law by Tennessee SuperLawyers in 2020, 2019, and 2018. He is also a member of The National Trial Lawyers’ Top 40 under 40, an exclusive professional organization for top trial lawyers under the age of 40. Sam’s commitment to continuous learning and improvement is demonstrated by his certifications in Trial Skills from the National College of DUI Defense in 2019 and 2018.

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