Tennessee Child Custody Laws that Apply to Unmarried Parents

There a few differences in the way child custody works in Tennessee if the parents are not married when the child is born. The one thing that remains the same, whether you and your partner were married or not, is that child custody decisions are always made with the best interest of the child in mind.

How do you establish paternity in Tennessee?

Under Tennessee law, when a child is born to parents who are married to one another, the husband is the legal father of the child at birth.

Unmarried mothers who give birth automatically receive full custody of their child while unmarried fathers have to prove paternity. Once paternity is proven, however, fathers can assert their legal parental rights, which includes custody or parenting time if the couple lives apart.

Merely signing your name as father on a birth certificate does not establish legal paternity in Tennessee. Regardless of whether you signed the birth certificate, you still have the ability to establish paternity under Tennessee Code § 36-2-305 by executing an agreement or acknowledgement, by court order, or by confirming paternity using a DNA test.

What is the child custody process for unwed Tennessee parents?

There is one thing that remains the same whether or not you and your partner were married when your son or daughter was born; that child custody decisions are always made with the best interest of your child in mind. A father who wants to secure his legal right to establish a parent-child relationship with his son or daughter has the legal standing to do so once paternity has been established.

As the father, you may petition a Tennessee family court for full or joint custody. If you and the child’s Mother do not have an agreement, then you will be required to participate in mediation once your petition is filed. Thereafter, if you do not have an agreement, a hearing date will be scheduled with a judge, who will weigh what the court believes your child needs in order to flourish against what you are each capable of providing him or her. Once the decision has been made, it will be reduced to a court order that you will both be required to follow.

What factors will the courts consider?

The primary factors judges consider include:

  • The disposition of each parent to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care, education, and other necessary care.
  • The degree to which each parent has been the child’s primary caregiver.
  • The love, affection and emotional ties between each parent and the child.
  • Continuity in the child’s life and length of time he/she has lived in a stable environment.
  • Stability of the family unit of each parent.
  • Mental and physical health of each parent.
  • The child’s home, school, and community record.
  • The reasonable preference of the child if he/she is at least 12 years old.
  • Evidence of physical or emotional abuse to the child, to the other parent or any other person.
  • The character and behavior of anyone else who resides in or frequents the parent’s home and their interactions with the child.
  • Each parent’s past and potential for future performance of parenting responsibilities, including the willingness and ability of each parent to foster a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and both parents.

Financial status is not itself supposed to play a part in deciding who the primary custodian will be, but there are factors that may be affected by your income such as having the resources to secure a safe, stable home. This, however, may be where child support will help.

What can I do if I don’t like the custody outcome?

Another thing to be mindful of is that custody orders can be modified if there is ever a material change in circumstances. While there is never a guarantee in how a judge will rule, you need to petition the court again to prove why those circumstances warrant the change.

Just some of the changes that may justify your petition can be:

  • Your living situation has substantially improved
  • You have relocated to be close to your child
  • The other parent has interfered in your relationship with your child
  • Your child is being abused by someone in the other parent’s home

Will I be required to pay child support to see my child?

This topic is frequently confusing to anyone engaged in a child custody and visitation arrangement who doesn’t live together. The short answer is that once the court decides parentage, it will also order child support. From that point forward one of you will be required to pay child support to the other for the benefit of your son or daughter, and who pays depends on the incomes of both parents and other factors that are considered in the Child Support Worksheet under the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines.

That said, it is important to note that child custody and payment of child support are two separate issues. One parent may not deny the other access to parenting time with the child simply because child support payments are in arrears. If a parent is owed child support, they can pursue enforcement through the court. Courts use a specific set of guidelines to determine the amount of child support, though they may deviate from these guidelines a bit in exceptional cases.

Creating a parenting plan

Even if you have opted to be in a committed relationship without marriage and are raising your child together, there are benefits to legally establishing parentage and creating a parenting plan. While you won’t have to worry about a divorce should your relationship end, you will still need to coparent your child.

A parenting plan is nothing more than an agreement that becomes a court order that delineates the decisions you both agree to abide by with regard to raising your child. These plans can decide virtually anything you perceive may become a disagreement, for example:

  • Religious upbringing
  • Educational decisions
  • Approved extracurricular activities
  • Financial responsibility outside of any legally established child support
  • Visitation schedules

A judge will not remove a child from the mother to live with the father unless the court decides that it is in the best interest of the child. Unmarried parents who need help getting custody of their child, or who need assistance with child support enforcement might benefit from consulting with an experienced Nashville family law attorney from Miller Upshaw Family Law, PLLC.

Unmarried parents have legal rights in Tennessee. If you are anticipating a custody dispute with your child’s other parent, we encourage you to have a conversation with a knowledgeable Nashville family law attorney who has earned the trust of many Tennessee families. We create workable child custody agreements that will support your needs and keep your child’s best interests in mind. To schedule your consultation, please call 615-391-4200, or we invite you to use our contact form to reach out to the dedicated legal team at Miller Upshaw Family Law, PLLC.