Tennessee law emphasizes each child's right to financial support from both parents regardless of the parents' relationship. However, the parents' custody rights often affect the process of obtaining child support. Each parent should know the relevant Tennessee laws regarding paternity, child support orders and enforcement of unpaid support. Parents who need help with asserting their rights may apply for services through the Child Support Services Division of the Tennessee Department of Human Services.
If married parents separate or divorce, Tennessee custody laws generally require a parenting plan to explain the parents' custody, visitation and support rights. If the parents can agree on a parenting plan, the divorce court reviews their agreement and decides whether to approve the plan. However, if the parents cannot agree, each parent can submit a proposed plan and ask the court to decide.
If the plan identifies one parent as the residential parent — often known as the custodial parent in other states — the other parent, known as the alternate residential parent, will likely need to pay child support. The amount of child support depends on the court's calculations using the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines, which consider the parents' incomes and child-related needs such as health care coverage.
Under Tennessee law, if two parents were never married, a parent with custody often needs to prove the other parent's paternity before obtaining a court order for child support. Most commonly, a custodial mother must establish a man's paternity before requesting child support. In Tennessee, a man can voluntarily acknowledge a child's paternity by signing up for the state's putative father registry or by providing written consent for the child's birth certificate to include his name. The parents may also sign a parentage agreement together for court approval. If lacking a voluntary acknowledgment or an agreement, the custodial parent likely must open a parentage case in state court, a process that requires genetic testing, before the court will issue an order confirming the child's parentage and a child support order.
Child Support Orders
A parent with custodial rights can apply for a child support order from the state through the Child Support Services Division.The division can help with court proceedings and work with local district attorneys, if necessary, to establish a noncustodial parent's child support obligation. These services are often optional. However, Tennessee law requires participation in child support services as a condition of receiving public assistance through Families First or TennCare/Medicaid. If a custodial parent applies for public assistance, the division will likely become involved if the two parents don't live in the same household.
Child Support Enforcement
Unpaid child support often entails serious legal consequences. The Child Support Services Division handles enforcement actions for unpaid child support — known as arrears — in Tennessee. State laws allow for a variety of enforcement measures to obtain the required payments from noncustodial parents and to deter arrears in the future. The state may take action to impose wage withholding, which establishes automatic deductions for child support from the noncustodial parent's paychecks. The state can also seize the noncustodial parent's assets or establish liens against his property. Tennessee laws also allow for driver's license suspension, revocation of professional licenses, denial of a U.S. passport application and tax refund interception as the legal consequences of unpaid child support. In addition, the state might start a contempt case in court or report the unpaid child support to credit reporting agencies.