“Luke, I Am Your Father!”
The famous, misquoted dialogue in Star Wars Episode 5 where Darth Vader reveals he is Luke’s Father would not be enough under Tennessee Law for Darth Vader to have any rights to parent Luke.1 Perhaps this is another example where the law is a bit more complicated than the movies. As an attorney, I have answered many questions about the rights of parents and children under Tennessee law. This article is intended to provide an overview of the default rules that govern the rights of parents under Tennessee law. It also addresses how mothers and fathers can petition to establish paternity in the Tennessee court system.
Tennessee is what is commonly referred to as a “Mother’s state”. This simply means that when children are born out of wedlock, the Father has no rights to parent the child.2 If the parents are married, the husband is considered the father of children born during the marriage. If the parents are not married at the time of the birth, legal action of some sort must be taken to establish paternity, or the child has no legal father.
How Can Paternity Be Established?
Paternity may be established through a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity signed in front of a notary or through a Court Order.3 The Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity is, “a simple legal process for an unmarried mother to establish paternity with the biological father. This process will allow the father’s name to be added to the birth certificate, and if the parents choose, for the child to have his last name.”4
If the mother and father of a child born out of wedlock do not get along, they may be forced to adjudicate the dispute through the court system. In the more populated counties in Tennessee, the county juvenile court has exclusive jurisdiction. In less populated counties, the juvenile court has jurisdiction along with any trial court with general jurisdiction.5 To get this process started in the court system, the Mother or Father would file a Petition in order to establish paternity. A Petition may be filed in the county where the mother lives, the father resides and/or the child is located
The Petition can be a short filing pursuant to the section of Tennessee law governing Parentage and Legitimation: Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-2-301 through 36-2-322. It would be wise for the Petition to include information about who the parties are, where they reside, why the Petitioner believes he is the father of the child and include a request for DNA testing pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 24-7-112. The Petition should be filed with the Court and served on the Respondent. The Respondent would then have thirty days to respond to the lawsuit.
Additional Information You Should Know
There are some additional pieces of information about Tennessee law governing Parentage and Legitimation that are useful to know. The applicable Statute of Limitations is found in T.C.A. § 36-2-306. An action to establish parentage may be brought before or after the birth of the child until three (3) years after the age of majority. The age of majority in Tennessee is 18, thus a Petition in order to establish paternity may be brought until the child is 21 years old. The court is required to set a temporary order of child support if a party motions for it, and if the party shows “clear and convincing evidence of parentage on the basis of genetic tests.”6 Once parentage is established under Tennessee law, the child shall be entitled to inherit from the father in accordance with other law.7 There is no limitations period for child support payment orders.8 There are no jury trials and hearings should be expedited.9 The primary residential parent has a right to child support payments under Tennessee law.
That Important First Step
If you think you are the biological father of a child, or if you are the mother of the child and want to establish who the father is, I encourage you to speak with an attorney. The first step in this process is to establish legal paternity through a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity, or to file a Petition in the proper court. DNA testing may be required. Every case is different, yet understanding the basic legal background can be valuable before you begin. An experienced Nashville family law attorney at Cole Law Group would be happy to advise and guide you through the decision-making process and expedition of establishing paternity. Call us at (615) 490-6020.
1 See https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Empire_Strikes_Back (discussing Star Wars Episode V and some of the more well known dialogue from the movie).
2 https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/human-services/documents/Establishing_Paternity_FINAL.PDF (“IF YOU ARE NOT MARRIED WHEN YOUR CHILD IS BORN, YOUR CHILD DOES NOT AUTOMATICALLY HAVE A LEGAL FATHER.”); Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-2-303(“Absent an order of custody to the contrary, custody of a child born out of wedlock is with the mother.”)
3 See https://www.tn.gov/humanservices/for-families/child-support-services/tennessee-paternity-acknowledgment-program–tn-vaop-.html
5 T.C.A. § 36-2-307.
6 T.C.A. § 36-2-310.
7 T.C.A. § 36-2-313.
8 T.C.A. § 36-2-321.
9 T.C.A. § 36-2-308.