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What is a Primary Residential Parent?

In Tennessee, the parent with the majority of parenting time is always designated as the primary residential parent. Generally, both parents will make decisions regarding the day-to-day care of their children while the children are in their custody. It follows then that the parent who spends the most time with the children, that is, the primary residential parent, will have more opportunity to make those day-to-day decisions. But what happens when both parents have equal parenting time with the children? Who is the primary residential parent?

I have seen more mediations break down over who will be designated primary residential parent than for any other reason. That is why I despise the term and the designation. I can see no real use for the term or the concept of a primary residential parent. The designation is only for the purpose of any applicable state and federal laws and has no effect on who makes the major decisions for the children. Nonetheless, when parents hear the term “primary residential parent,” they go no further. Most people believe the term is reserved for the parent who is more superior as it relates to the children. Even after the divorce is final and even after being told the designation carries no advantage over the other parent, the primary residential parent will hold that designation over the other parent. “I’m the primary residential parent” is the mantra often used when parents cannot agree.

The parenting plan states that “the designation of primary residential parent is SOLELY for purposes of any other applicable state and federal laws. If the parents are listed in Section II of the parenting plan as joint decision-makers, then, for purposes of obtaining health or other insurance, they shall be considered to be joint custodians. THE DESIGNATION DOES NOT AFFECT EITHER PARENT’S RIGHTS OR RESPONSIBILITIES UNDER THIS PARENTING PLAN.”

One situation where the designation of primary residential parent does seem to have an effect is in where a child goes to school. I have run into several situations over the past year where the parents who were spending equal parenting time with the children were only able to send the children to the school for which the primary residential parent was zoned. In one case the parties agreed to change the primary residential parent to the parent who was zoned for the school where they both wanted the child to attend. In that case the parenting time remained equal but the designation was changed. It appears school systems are now reviewing parenting plans to see who is named the primary residential parent and then using that designation to determine the school zone for the children.

The important point to take away from all of this is that being named the primary residential parent has little or no meaning. The important thing to consider is what is in the best interest of the children. If you are dead set on being named primary residential parent but cannot articulate to me why such a designation is important, then I am going to conclude you do not have the best interest of your children at heart.

In situations where you and the other parent have agreed on equal parenting time, do not be willing to risk having a judge undo the agreement because you feel you have to be named primary residential parent. On the other hand, if equal parenting time would not be in the best interest of the children, either because the distance between you and the other parent is too great, or the other parent’s work schedule makes equal parenting time unfeasible, or for some other legitimate reason, then by all means fight to be the primary residential parent. The most important factor to keep in mind in all custody cases is the best interest of the children. Keeping that concept front and center in all cases involving children will go a long way to minimize the negative effects of divorce on your children.

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