How to Terminate Custody of a Child in Tennessee

In Tennessee, as in other states, the law favors keeping families intact and keeping children with their parents. The termination of a parent's rights permanently severs the parent-child relationship, so the law treats these proceedings very seriously. A parent's rights may be terminated in Tennessee only for certain reasons, and only if the procedures laid out in the statute are followed.

Procedure and Notice Requirements

A proceeding to terminate a parent's rights begins when someone with "knowledge of the facts" (such as another family member) files a petition for the termination of parental rights. In Tennessee, the petition is brought in Court of jurisdiction. The chancery and circuit courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the juvenile court to terminate parental rights under section 36-1-113.

Once a petition for termination of parental rights is filed, the court will appoint an attorney to represent the child. Unlike in most civil proceedings, the court will also appoint an attorney for the parents if they can show they are indigent. Tennessee law recognizes the gravity of terminating parental rights, and making sure everyone is represented by counsel helps the court ensure that all of the relevant facts are raised.

The petition must served (delivered) on the parents. If a parent fails to respond to the petition or appear in court, the court may take the child into protective custody. 

A hearing will be scheduled after the petition is filed. The hearing is conducted without a jury; it is up to a judge alone to determine whether to grant or deny a petition to terminate parental rights in Tennessee. 

Reasons for Terminating Parental Rights

Under Tennessee law (Section 36-1-113), a court may only terminate parental rights if one or more of the following circumstances has occurred (this is not an all-inclusive list:

  • the parent consented (in writing) to the termination or voluntarily surrendered the child for adoption

  • Abandonment by a parent or guardian, as defined in section 36-1-102

  • There has been a substantial noncompliance by the parent of guardian with the statement of responsibilities in a permanency plan pursuant to the provisions of title 37, chapter 2, part 4

  • the parent or guardian has been found to have committed severe child abuse as defined in section 37-1-102

  • the parent has been confined in a correctional or detention facility of any type, by order of the court as a result of a criminal act, under a sentence of ten (10) years or more, and the child is under eight (8) years at the time the sentence is entered by the court

  • The parent or guardian has been sentenced to more than two (2) years' imprisonment for conduct against the child who is the subject of the petition, or for conduct against any sibling or half-sibling of the child or any other child residing temporarily or permanently in the home of such parent or guardian, that has been found under any prior order of a court or that is found by the court hearing the petition to be severe child abuse, as defined in § 37-1-102.  

    A person seeking to terminate parental rights must prove both the existence of one of the statutory grounds for termination and that termination is in the child’s best interest. Because of the fundamental nature of the parent’s rights and the grave consequences of the termination of those rights, courts must require a higher standard of proof in deciding termination cases. Consequently, both the grounds for termination and the best interest inquiry must be established by clear and convincing evidence. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-3-113). Clear and convincing evidence establishes that the truth of the facts asserted is highly probable and eliminates any serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of the conclusions drawn from the evidence. Below are a few of the “Best Interest” factors: 

  • Whether the parent or guardian has made such an adjustment of circumstance, conduct, or conditions as to make it safe in the child’s best interest to be in the home of the parent of guardian;

  • Whether the parent or guardian has failed to effect a lasting adjustment after reasonable efforts by available social services agencies for such duration of time that lasting adjustment does not reasonably appear possible;

  • Whether the parent or guardian has maintained regular visitation or other contact with the child;

  • Whether a meaningful relationship has otherwise been established between the parent or guardian and the child;

  • The effect a change of caretakers and physical environment is likely to have on the child’s emotional, psychological and medical condition;

  • Whether the parent of guardian, or other person residing with the parent or guardian, has shown brutality, physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse, or neglect toward the child, or another child or adult in the family or household;

  • Whether the physical environment of the parent’s or guardian’s home is healthy and safe, whether there is criminal activity in the home, or whether there is such use of alcohol, controlled substances or controlled substance analogues as may render the parent or guardian consistently unable to care for the child in a safe and stable manner;

  • Whether the parent’s or guardian’s mental and/or emotional status would be detrimental to the child or prevent the parent or guardian from effectively providing safe and stable care and supervision fro the child;

  • Whether the parent or guardian has paid child support consistent with the child support guidelines promulgated by the department pursuant to TCA 36-5-101.


By clicking on the topic below, you can read a more in-depth article on the subject matter.

 Termination based on willful failure to pay child support

 Termination based on failure to provide a suitable home