Tennessee Parenting Plans and You: Primary Residential Parent

Note: The following, like all posts on the Collaborative Compound, is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as providing legal advice.  As a colleague says, legal advice you have to pay for.  This is not intended for the solicitation of or the formation of an attorney-client relationship, and should not be construed as such. Onward and upward! 

Welcome back.  In the first of these posts, I gave you a step by step blueprint for developing your own Parenting Plan in Tennessee.  We covered nearly every section, so if you’re reading these posts in order, you should have the following sections left:

1. Primary Residential Parent
2. Federal Income Tax Exemption
3. Financial (Child) Support

In this, Part Two of the Guide to Tennessee’s Parenting Plan, we’ll be discussing one of the most contentious portions of the Parenting Plan itself–the designation of Primary Residential Parent.  I’ve seen more mediations break down over this designation than child support.  I’ve seen it become a topic that’s caused cases to go to trial.  The reality is that it can all be avoided by understanding once crucial fact: it’s a legal term that carries no weight in your case, nor does it affect which parent is “better” than the other.

I cannot stand the term “Primary Residential Parent,” especially in a state like Tennessee where divorcing parties with children are expected to share equal co-parenting time.  The term itself is used to designate which parent will have the child or children for the majority of the time, for the purpose of applicable state and federal laws–nothing more.  Parents hear the word “Primary Residential” and stop at that, though; they think the term connotes one being more superior or one getting better benefits out of the divorce at the expense of the children.

The reality is that it’s impossible to split the difference when it comes to where children live. We want our children to have equal time with each parent, but schedules make that ideal a difficult reality. School, activities, play dates, social functions–all of these mean one parent will shoulder more time with the children than another.  Therefore, it makes sense to say that one parent will be the “Primary Residential Parent” for the purposes of whatever laws need application in a given situation.  You can also say that you’ll split the time with the children 50-50, and a court can approve as such, but economics and the need for stability will dictate the children living in one residence more than another by their very nature.

Another major myth about the “Primary Residential Parent” status is that it is somehow a determination of custody.  Section IV on Page six of the Parenting Plan states that it is not.  In fact, this section states “if the parents are listed in Section II as joint decision-makers, then, for purposes of obtaining health or other insurance, they shall be considered to be JOINT CUSTODIANS (emphasis added).”  The plan further goes to state in this very same paragraph the designation does NOT affect either parent’s rights or responsibilities under the Plan. Therefore, the designation does NOT grant one parent custody over the other, and cannot be treated as such.

In addition, both parents have rights that cannot be taken from them per the provisions of Section VI on page seven.  The “Primary Residential Parent” is required to give adequate notice of relocation just like the non-PRP would be as well (See Section VII, Page Seven).  Therefore, the designation does not matter in terms of what rights and time the parents have with their child or children.

One final myth about “Primary Residential Parent” status is that the PRP gets a greater amount of child support than the non-PRP, or that the PRP is automatically entitled to child support.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Child support is an entirely separate matter, one that involves parental income and expenses plugged into a complex algorithm determined by the State.  There’s even a tablet/smartphone app for determining child support obligations, which I will discuss in Part Three.  For now, know the designation itself means very little in terms of fiscal gain–and if that’s the reason you’re seeking “Primary Residential Parent” status in your Plan then you’re potentially in for a rude awakening.

If none of the above have convinced you the Primary Residential Parent status isn’t worth an argument, ask yourself this question before taking the matter to a judge: is it really worth trying to determine who is “better” for the sake of a Court document?  Does a piece of paper make you feel like more or less of a parent if a box is checked saying a child spends more time with you than your spouse?  If the answer to these questions in your mind is “yes,” then step back, take a breath, and affirm to yourself that your actions, not a piece of paper, determine your fitness as a parent.

Still not convinced?  Ask yourself if the fight is in “the best interests” of your child or children.  The last page of the Parenting Plan contains in bold print a statement that you declare “under penalty of perjury” the plan was “proposed in good faith and is in the best interest of each minor child.”  Generally, fights over a meaningless title aren’t in the best interests of the children–they don’t contribute in a positive way to their development, they don’t place the children first, and they don’t place the parents on equal footing in the child’s eyes (which absent serious circumstances, both parents should be).

The designation “Primary Residential Parent” carries with it as much weight as being called “Grand High Poobah of Never-Never Land.”  Until something with less loaded language enters the Plan, recognize it has no immediate or future bearing beyond that which you provide and you’ll have an easier time with these sections.

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