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A Guide to Fathers’ Rights in Tennessee

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What Rights Do You Have as a Father in Tennessee?

Becoming a father can be a wonderful experience. You are likely looking forward to all the time you will spend with your child and the special memories you will make. Unfortunately, the path to securing fundamental rights to custody, parenting time, and more can be very complicated for some fathers. A solid understanding of the state’s laws is the first step to protecting parental rights. A knowledgeable family law attorney can explain what you need to know about fathers’ rights in Tennessee and the legal actions you can take to ensure you remain involved in your child’s life.

How Does Your Marriage Status Impact Your Parental Rights?

Under Tennessee law, if you were married to your child’s mother when the child was conceived or born, you are automatically considered their legal father and are granted full parental rights. If, at a later date, you end your relationship with the mother, you will continue to have rights as a father unless there are exceptional circumstances that warrant their limitation or removal. However, the court must keep the best interests of the child in mind at all times. In most circumstances, having a solid relationship with their biological father is best for the child’s mental and physical well-being.

The situation becomes much more complex if you are not married to the mother at the time of your child’s birth. An unmarried mother is immediately granted full custody of her child. For an unwed father to obtain parental rights, he must first establish paternity. Unfortunately, signing the child’s birth certificate at the hospital is not enough to provide the legal proof of parentage that the court requires for fathers.

How Do You Establish Paternity if You Are Not Married to Your Child’s Mother?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 42.8% of all children born in Tennessee in 2021 had an unwed mother. It is vital for the fathers of these children to understand the legal process for securing their right to play a positive role in their child’s upbringing. Establishing your paternity ensures you maintain your legal ability to see and spend time with your child. Two ways exist to prove your parentage as a father:

  • Complete a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage (VAoP) form: If you and your child’s mother are on good terms and she acknowledges you as the child’s father, you can fill out this form to establish paternity. You both must sign the document in front of a notary public, although you do not need to do it at the same time. It is imperative that you refrain from signing this form if you have any uncertainty about whether you are the father because it is a legally binding document. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact a Tennessee paternity lawyer prior to signing.
  • File a petition to establish paternity: If you believe you are the father of a child, you may petition the court in the county where you, the mother, or the child live. The mother’s permission is not required to file this petition. If the mother will not complete a VAoP, the court can order a DNA test to be conducted on you and the child to confirm your relationship. 

How is Child Custody Determined?

Once you have established paternity, you have the right to request an ongoing relationship with your child. Custody is split into two types:

  • Legal custody: The right to have a say in important decisions involving your child’s health, education, religious affiliation, and other aspects of their upbringing.
  • Physical custody: The daily living arrangements of the child, including where they will stay and which parent they will spend time with.

If you and your child’s mother can reach a custody agreement, you may file it with the court to make it official. Otherwise, the court will create a custody arrangement that is in the best interests of the child. You may request to be the primary residential parent, meaning your child will live with you the majority of the time. The other option is to be the alternate residential parent. Under this arrangement, your child will visit you on a court-ordered schedule but will live with the other parent over half the time. Even if you are the alternate residential parent, you still have legal custody rights and must be included in making important decisions about your child’s life.

Sole custody is rare and is typically not ordered unless one parent is found unfit. Possible reasons for a parent to be declared legally unfit include a history of physical or sexual abuse, severe mental or physical illness, serious legal problems, substance abuse, or other significant issues that could endanger the child’s well-being. If you are considering seeking sole custody, you should enlist the assistance of a skilled lawyer as soon as possible to help protect your child’s safety.

How is Child Support Determined?

In addition to having rights as a father, you also have obligations to your child. You may be required to provide health insurance and make child support payments to pay for part of your child’s expenses. However, just because you establish paternity does not necessarily mean you will be ordered to pay child support. The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines include formulas the court will use to determine who will pay child support and how much. These formulas take into account both parents’ incomes, their custody arrangement, and more. If you have questions about your potential support obligations, contact a child support lawyer today for more information.

How Can an Experienced Family Law Attorney Assist You?

Navigating the Tennessee courts to establish and protect your rights as a father can feel daunting and challenging. However, having strong, compassionate legal representation can help. At the Law Office of Hibbeler & Associates, we have years of experience assisting fathers who want lasting relationships with their biological children. Contact our law firm today at 931-236-2711 to learn how we can serve you.

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