By Jedidiah McKeehan

When parents have children together and they are not married to each other, who controls where the children should be?

As part of a custody or divorce case, the courts will enter a Parenting Plan that lays out when the children will spend time with each parent.  The parents may alternate their kids on a week on, week off basis, or one parent may have every other weekend of visitation and have the children during the majority of the summer break.

The Parenting Plan dives into several other aspects regarding parenting.  It discusses who should make decisions about the children’s extra-curricular activities and it says who should cover the children under their health insurance.

One part of the parenting plan that often becomes an argument is which parent shall be designated as the Primary Residential Parent.

Under Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-410, “a parenting plan must designate the parent with whom the child is schedule to reside a majority of the time as the primary residential parent of the child; provided, that this designation shall not affect either parent’s rights and responsibilities under the parenting plan.” Okay, so the primary residential parent is the parent with whom the parent resides the majority of the time.  That’s easy to understand.  However, what if the parenting schedule shows the parents getting 50/50 time?  That same Tennessee law states, “when the child is scheduled to reside an equal amount of time with both parents, the parents may agree to a designation as joint primary residential parents or to waive the designation of a primary residential parent.”

So that’s good, if it’s a 50/50 plan, then you do not have to designate a Primary Residential Parent.  People get very worked up about wanting this title.  Even though attorneys will tell you that the Primary Residential Parent only matters for school zoning purposes.  But wait a second, if it’s a 50/50 plan, which parent’s residence do we use for school zoning?

Well, Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-6-415 states that, “when the child is scheduled to reside an equal amount of time with both parents, the address of either parent may be used to determine school zoning.”

So, let’s unpack this.  The law says you have to designate a Primary Residential Parent in a Parenting Plan.  The Primary Residential Parent will be the person whose address is used for school zoning purposes.  However, if the parties have a 50/50 plan, then they can designate themselves as joint primary residential parents.”  When they do this, they still need to decide who address will be used for school zoning purposes.

Really, a fight over Primary Residential Parent status and designation in its most basic form is a fight over where the kids will go to school.  This can be a very minor issue if the parents like the school their kids attend, and live close to each other, or it can be a huge issue if the parents live some distance away from each other.


Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties.  He works in many areas, including divorce, custody, criminal, and personal injury. Visit for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.