Establishing Paternity in Tennessee

“Paternity” derives from the Latin word 'pater' meaning father. In legal terms, “establishing paternity” means determining a child’s “legal” father and the related rights and obligations of the father of the child. Every child has a biological father, but not every child has a “legal” father. When “paternity has been established” it means that the child now has a legal father.

If a man and wife are married when a child is born, paternity is automatically established. The mother's legal husband is considered the legal father, his name is placed on the child’s birth certificate.

If the biological parents of a child are not married to each other when the child is born, then paternity must be established before the father’s name will be added to the child’s birth certificate and before the father has any rights to the child.

Voluntarily or Involuntarily

Paternity can be established either “voluntarily” or “involuntarily” until the child turns 21 years old.

If the mother and father agree that the father is the biological father, paternity can be established voluntarily. To voluntarily establish paternity, both the father and mother must sign a document called a “Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity.”

Usually this document is signed in the hospital when the child is born. It can also be obtained and signed later at the child support office, local health department, or the Office of Vital Records. The mother and father must both sign the same document in front of a notary public. After it is signed and notarized, the Acknowledgment of Paternity must be filed with the Office of Vital Records. Once properly filed, the biological father is the legal father of the child and this name can be added to the child’s birth certificate.

Involuntary establishment of paternity requires a court proceeding. The court issues an “order of parentage.” This method is “involuntary” because if paternity is disputed, the court steps in to settle the matter.

The court process begins when a “Petition to Establish Parentage” is filed at a court located in the county where either the mother, father, or child lives. A number of people may file the petition: the mother, the father, the child (through a guardian), or the Tennessee Department of Human Services if the child is receiving public assistance.

A denial of paternity or simply uncertainty about paternity may cause the court to order DNA testing. A DNA test requires that the child, mother, and father have the inside of their cheeks swabbed with a Q tip type device to pick up DNA material inside cells. The DNA is then sent to a laboratory for analysis. After DNA testing the court can determine with an extremely high level of accuracy that the father is truly the biological father. Then the court will issue an order of parentage, making the father the legal father and his name will be added to the child’s birth certificate. Within the proceeding to determine paternity, the court can also issue orders of custody, visitation, and child support.

Why establish paternity

Establishing paternity means a lot more than simply having a father named on the child’s birth certificate. Benefits accrue to the child, the mother, and the father when paternity is established.

Establishing paternity helps children:

  • have a relationship with both parents
  • learn about medical histories,
  • access medical insurance and other benefits like life insurance, Social Security, Veterans benefits, and inheritance.

Establishing paternity helps mothers:

  • share the responsibilities of parenthood
  • share the costs of raising their child.

Establishing paternity helps fathers:

  • gain legal rights to their child (like being able to ask a court for custody of or visitation with their child)
  • show they care about their child
  • participate in their child’s life.

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