Tennessee Law for Granting Custody to People Who Are Not Married

By Stephanie Kurose, J.D.

Tennessee Law for Granting Custody to People Who Are Not Married

By Stephanie Kurose, J.D.

Tennessee child custody laws overwhelmingly support the mother in cases where the parents of a child are not married. The unmarried mother's name on the child's birth certificate is sufficient proof of her custodial rights. Her right to custody is automatic under state law. By contrast, even if the unmarried father's name is on the birth certificate, without further action, it does not automatically establish his custodial rights. It merely proves his relationship to the child. If the unmarried father wants equal or part custody of the child, he must initiate juvenile court proceedings in order to gain custody rights.

Woman kissing the head of a toddler she is holding

Unwed Mothers' Rights in Tennessee

Tennessee Code Section 36-2-303 grants unmarried mothers automatic custody rights to a child born out of wedlock. The mother gets legal and physical custody of the child, which means that she has the exclusive right to not only live with and care for the child, but also to make important decisions about the child's care and upbringing, such as where the child goes to school, what religion (if any) to follow, and what types of medical care they will receive.

As long as the mother's name is on the birth certificate, no further legal action is needed to assert her custodial rights. Unless a court order states otherwise, the mother also has the authority to decide whether the father can see the child and how much of a role he plays in the child's life.

Unwed Fathers' Rights in Tennessee

When a married couple has a child and both parent's names are on the birth certificate, Tennessee law grants them equal rights and access to the child. However, the law treats unmarried fathers differently. An unwed father's name is on the child's birth certificate, but it does not automatically grant him custodial rights in Tennessee. There are additional steps the father must complete before the state grants him equal custody rights.

First, the unwed father must establish paternity. He can do this by filing a petition to establish parentage with a state juvenile court. The parents can voluntarily acknowledge parentage through hospital documents (such as a birth certificate) or it can be determined through genetic testing. Once paternity is established, the father must then petition the court to amend the custody arrangement.

"Best Interests of the Child" Standard

When deciding whether to grant partial or equal custody to the father, courts use the "best interests of the child" standard and does so by examining several factors. A judge may consider the relationship between the parents and the child, parental stability—including whether the parents are still in a relationship—their mental health, physical health, and ability to provide for the child's needs, and any evidence of domestic violence or child abuse.

In cases where the child is age 12 or older, the judge may also consider the preference of the child. If the child does not want to live with one parent, the judge will likely take that into serious consideration when determining whether to change the custody arrangement.

Child custody laws in Tennessee are a bit more complicated when the parents are not married. If you need assistance, consider enlisting the help of a professional.

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