What Rights Do You Possess as an Unmarried Father in Tennessee?
Having both parents in a child’s life is nearly always best for their mental and physical well-being. However, under Tennessee law, unmarried fathers do not automatically receive custody or visitation rights. Instead, these automatic rights are granted solely to the unwed mother. Unmarried fathers must take proactive steps to legally establish their parentage and protect their rights to play a role in their child’s upbringing.
If you are not wed to the mother of your child, it can be beneficial to enlist the assistance of a skilled Tennessee family law attorney who can guide you through the process of asserting and safeguarding your parental rights. At the Law Office of Hibbeler & Associates, we understand the stress and legal concerns that unmarried fathers may experience. We strive to provide clear answers and strong advocacy so you can face the custody process with confidence.
How Do You Establish Parentage as an Unmarried Father?
Regardless of whether you are in a long-term relationship with your child’s mother or on good terms, if you were not a married couple within 300 days of the child’s birth, Tennessee law immediately grants the mother full custody of the newborn child.
You cannot even voluntarily sign the birth certificate at the hospital as the baby’s biological father until you have established parentage. To officially establish paternity for your child and obtain rights as an unmarried father, you must complete one of the following actions.
Fill Out a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage
A Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage (VAoP) is a form that allows an unmarried mother to establish the paternity of her child with the biological father. You must both sign the form in front of a notary public, although you do not have to sign it at the same time. By signing the document, you both swear that the information it contains is accurate to the best of your knowledge.
If you are present at the birth and the mother is agreeable to filing a VAoP, the process can be completed at the hospital with the assistance of staff members. For unmarried fathers who are absent due to military duty or other circumstances, you or the mother can contact your local child support office or health department for help filling out and submitting the VAoP. Keep in mind that this form is a binding legal document, and getting it reversed can be highly challenging. If you have any doubts about whether the child is yours, you should avoid signing the VAoP and arrange for DNA testing to determine paternity.
Petition the Court
If the mother refuses to sign a VAoP or another man has claimed to be the biological father of your child, you can petition the court to establish paternity. You do not require the cooperation or permission of the mother to begin a petition. The petition must be filed in the Tennessee county where you, the child, or the child’s mother reside. The court will order DNA tests to verify the relationship between you and the child.
Can You Petition to Adjudicate Parentage if the Mother of Your Child is Married to Another Man?
If the mother of your child is married to another man at the time of your child’s birth, her husband will automatically be presumed to be the father of the child. It is possible to refute this assumption through court action and establish your paternity rights, but you must act quickly.
Most claims of this nature must be filed within 12 months of the baby’s birth to be considered valid. If you find yourself in this challenging situation, you should reach out to a trusted family law attorney immediately for legal guidance.
What Rights Do You Have as an Unmarried Father With Established Parentage?
By taking steps to have yourself recognized as the biological and legal father of your child, you are setting yourself up to be an active member of their lives. After you have adjudicated parentage, you can take further actions to protect your ongoing relationship with your child, including:
- Filing a parenting plan and a parenting time schedule with the court.
- Safeguarding your rights to be the caregiver for your child if their mother is deemed unfit or becomes unable to care for them.
- Adding your child to your insurance to support their health and well-being.
As a father, you will also have responsibilities to uphold. Not all fathers will be required to pay child support because that determination is made by considering the financial situations of both parents. However, it is possible you may be ordered to pay child support to provide for your child’s needs. Your lawyer can help you navigate the custody and child support process as an unmarried father so you can be involved in caring for and providing for your child’s best interests.
Do Unmarried Fathers Have the Right to Choose or Change Their Child’s Last Name?
Unwed Tennessee mothers have the right to choose the last name of their child. The law states the child’s last name must be part of the mother’s legal name, her maiden name, or the father’s last name. If your child does not share your last name, and this is an important issue for you as the established father, you may petition the court at any time to request a change.
In these cases, the burden is on the father to present proof that a name change would be in the child’s best interests. Information the court may consider when making its ruling includes:
- The reputation attached to the current and proposed last names.
- The child’s preference in name, if they are old enough to state it.
- Any bullying, teasing, or discomfort the current or proposed last name could cause.
- How long the child has had the name and how a change could affect them.
How Can Our Law Firm Assist You?
As an unmarried father in Tennessee, it may feel as if you face many obstacles when attempting to be a part of your child’s life. Our experienced Tennessee paternity lawyers at the Law Office of Hibbeler & Associates can help simplify the process and uphold your rights as a parent. Contact our law firm today at 931-236-2711 to schedule a free 30-minute case evaluation to discuss your case.