What are the child custody laws in Tennessee for unmarried parents?

What are the child custody laws in Tennessee for unmarried parents?

Tennessee laws on child custody

Parenthood can be a beautiful thing. People might even feel like their role as a parent is the single most important role they’ll ever fill in their life. Still, families can be complex. Child custody isn’t always a clear-cut issue, and there are many factors that affect how custody might be determined. Complicating matters more, the law can work differently for married couples than it does for unmarried parents.

Child custody can be a complex matter, and understanding how the law applies to unwed parents can be important. Though child custody laws for unwed parents might look a little different than for married parents in Tennessee, there are also laws that apply to all parents in Tennessee that are important to understand. We’ll explore child custody laws in Tennessee that apply to unmarried parents, what they might mean in a custody case, and more.

Paternity of unmarried fathers is not automatically presumed

While for married couples in Tennessee, the husband is generally automatically presumed to be the father upon birth, legally, things are a little different for unmarried parents. Instead, unmarried fathers may need to legally establish paternity. As soon as a child is born to unmarried parents in Tennessee, the mother is generally presumed to have custody and the mother’s rights. For fathers who want to have a part in their child’s life and want the right to petition for custody, it can be important to establish paternity. Some of the potential benefits of establishing paternity might include:


  • Father’s rights–for which parentage must first be established.
  • Medical benefits–knowledge of their lineage may help your child better understand and navigate their health. Knowing if they have a family history of certain illnesses may help them seek better healthcare.
  • Financial benefits–establishing fatherhood might allow your child access to financial benefits.
  • Mental health benefits–as a father, being present in your child’s life may have positive effects on your child’s mental health.


There are many potential benefits to acknowledging paternity and establishing parentage legally. What’s more, the relationships that children have with their parents can be crucially important to their mental health and well-being. However, unmarried parents are not forced to acknowledge paternity. This can complicate the matters of custody and parental responsibilities significantly. Further on, we’ll discuss how in the absence of a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, there may be alternative options–such as a complaint to determine parentage.

The surname may be determined by the mother

When a child is born of unwed parents in Tennessee, the surname of the child, under Tennessee law, will be either the mother’s surname, the mother’s maiden surname, or some combination of the two. However, if both parents agree to sign an affidavit, the father’s surname can be used and his personal information can be entered on the birth certificate of the child.

Custody can hinge on the establishment of paternity

Under Tennessee law, unmarried biological fathers do not automatically have parental rights. Rather, should they wish to have parental rights–such as the ability to petition a court for custody–they may need to first take steps to establish their paternity.

Similarly, while parents are required to care for their children under Tennessee law, an unmarried mother may be unable to seek child support and other forms of parental support from the father unless his paternity is presumed.

There are several avenues through which paternity can be established. The parents may both willingly sign a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, or VOP, or a complaint to establish parentage may be filed by the mother, the child, or the father. In some cases, a DNA test may be required.

Since parental rights and parental responsibilities can both be deeply affected by whether or not a father has established paternity, establishing parentage on the part of the father can be highly important in some situations.

Custody is not awarded to mothers by default

Rather, courts will try to determine a custody arrangement that works in the best interest of the child. If the father is believed to be fitter as a parent, custody arrangements may reflect that. Still, since parentage isn’t automatically presumed of unmarried fathers unless they have established paternity, there may be cases where custody is given, by default, to the mother should there be no legal father.

Custody determinations are on the basis of the child’s best interests

Though child custody laws can be complex, In Tennessee, if a court has to rule on child custody matters, they are to be determined based on what is thought to be in the child’s best interest and aim to allow each parent to enjoy as much participation as possible in the child’s life–to that end.

This is the case regardless of whether or not the parents are married. Still, this can be especially important for unmarried parents to understand. While a father who has not established paternity may not even be able to petition for partial custody, even one who has may be tasked with demonstrating his ability to perform well as a parent.

Some factors that courts may consider when making determinations about custody include:


  • The relationship between each parent and the child
  • How well each parent has done or may do in the future, in providing food, clothing, and other necessities
  • How much each parent has contributed as a caregiver


In general, parents can expect courts to try their best to make a decision that works in the child’s best interest and gives each parent as much ability to participate in their child’s life as possible while still working toward the child’s best interests.

The Bottom Line

Understanding the law as it pertains to unmarried parents can be very important. For one, unwed parents who wish to be in their child’s life may need to seek parentage in order to receive parental rights. Without first establishing parentage, fathers may be unable to seek custody of their biological child. Being unmarried can have a big impact on the way parental rights and responsibilities work.

Whether you’re navigating a child custody case, wish to establish parentage, or want to learn more about your rights as a parent, you don’t need to work alone. With over a decade of experience, the law office of J Ryan Johnson can help you defend your parental rights. To learn how we can help, be sure to reach out and schedule an appointment today.

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.