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Establishing Paternity in Tennessee
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 “One night, a father heard his son pray, ‘Dear God, make me the kind of man my daddy is.’ Later that night, the father prayed, ‘Dear God, make me the kind of man my son thinks I am.’” ~ Anonymous




In 2014, 44 percent of Tennessee babies were born to unmarried mothers. 


In Tennessee, an unmarried mother automatically has sole custody of her child, with total decision-making authority, unless and until a court order says otherwise. 


Before the Juvenile Court can enter an order allowing an unmarried father to have parenting time and shared decision-making, the father must first establish paternity.


Q: Can an unmarried father sign a paper and establish paternity?


A: Yes, the biological father may sign a notarized Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity in order for his name to be placed on the child’s birth certificate – but only with the consent and cooperation of the unmarried mother.  


Q: How can a father establish paternity without the mother’s cooperation?


A: A father can file a petition for paternity in the county where he lives or the county where the child lives.


As an alternative, Tennessee’s Child Support Services offices have free services to help a mother or a father establish paternity of a child. Child Support Services include:  * Location of a child's parent(s) to obtain support or establish paternity * Establishment of paternity by DNA testing * Establishment and enforcement of child support and medical support orders * Collection and distribution of payments * Modification of child support orders, and * Enforcement of spousal support orders, if child support is involved. NOTE: Child Support Services offices do NOT handle parenting time and custody matters. After paternity is established, the father may file a written form petition for parenting time.


Q: How can an unmarried father guard against termination of his rights by adoption?


A: Tennessee maintains a free "putative fathers registry" so that an alleged, or putative, father’s parental rights cannot be terminated without his knowledge. 


The alleged father may register online, before or after the child is born, at:


James B. (Jim) Hawkins is a Tennessee general practice and public interest law attorney. This column represents legal information, and is not intended to take the place of legal advice. All cases are different and need individual attention.  Consult with a private attorney of your choice to review the facts and law specific to your case. To suggest future column topics, call (615) 452-9200.