“Paternity” means fatherhood. In the legal sense, “establishing paternity” refers to the determination of a child’s “legal” father and the related rights and obligations of the father to the child. Every child has a biological father, but not every child has a “legal” father. When “paternity has been established” it means that someone has been named the legal father of a child.
Paternity is automatically established if the parents are married to each other when the child is born. The mother's husband is considered the legal father, and his name will be placed on the child’s birth certificate.
In Tennessee, if the 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.
How do you establish paternity in Tennessee?
In Tennessee, paternity can be established either “voluntarily” or “involuntarily” until the child turns 21 years old.
When the mother and father agree that the father is in fact the biological father, paternity can be established voluntarily. To voluntarily establish paternity, both the father and mother must sign what’s called a “Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity.”
This is often done at the hospital when the child is born. The form 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 form in front of a notary. Once signed and notarized, the Acknowledgment of Paternity must be filed with, or sent to, the Office of Vital Records. Once properly filed, the father is the legal father of the child and his name will be added to the child’s birth certificate.
Involuntary establishment of paternity is done through a court proceeding where the court issues an “order of parentage.” This method is called “involuntary” because someone disputes paternity, which is why it becomes a court issue.
You begin the court process by filing a “Petition to Establish Parentage” 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.
If either the mother or the father denies or is uncertain of paternity, the court may order DNA testing. Today, a DNA test requires that the child, mother, and father have the inside of their cheeks swabbed. The DNA is then sent to a laboratory for analysis. If, after DNA testing, the court determines that the father is in fact the biological father, 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 should either parent establish paternity?
Establishing paternity means more than just having a father named on the child’s birth certificate. There are benefits for the child, the mother, and the father when paternity is established.
Establishing paternity helps children:
- have a relationship with both parents
- learn about family history, including medical histories, and
- access medical insurance and other benefits like life insurance, Social Security, Veterans benefits, and inheritance.
Establishing paternity helps mothers to:
- share the responsibilities of parenthood and
- share the costs of raising their child (once paternity is established, the mother can seek court ordered child support).
Establishing paternity helps fathers to:
- 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
- establish a bond with their child, and
- participate in their child’s life.
If you have questions about establishing paternity, you should contact a family law attorney for help.
For the full text of the statutes regarding establishment of paternity by Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity, see Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 68-3-203(g), 68-3-302, and 68-3-305(b).