Just like “maternity” refers to motherhood, “paternity” means fatherhood. And, in the legal sphere, paternity is a word that often arises in the context of parental rights and child custody.

Unlike married parents (who automatically receive full parental rights, once their child is born), unmarried parents—particularly fathers—do not always fall under Tennessee’s presumption of parenthood. Hence, they can’t assume authority in their child’s life until the court recognizes them as a legal parent.

If you are an unmarried parent, here’s what you need to know about establishing paternity in Tennessee, and how the Byrd Law team can help you settle these important matters in your child’s life. 


Parental Rights

Being recognized as your child’s legal parent is pretty important, especially when you consider that—without this status—you cannot claim your parental rights. But what does that mean, exactly?

Parental rights refer to the duties, obligations, and authority that come, pre-packaged, with the job description. This power is often called “child custody,” and is generally divided into two main branches: legal and physical custody

Included among these custodial rights are a parent’s right to be part of their child’s life, the obligation to meet their child’s physical and emotional needs, as well as the power to make decisions on their behalf, and to determine how their child will be raised. 

Parental rights are separate from marital rights, meaning that unmarried parents have just as much claim to this authority as their blissfully wedded counterparts (after all, you don’t have to be married to have a child, right?). 

That being said, unmarried parents can sometimes face additional challenges when claiming this power—largely because they do not fall under Tennessee’s presumption of parenthood. 


Presumption of Parenthood

In Tennessee, there are several situations when a child’s parents are automatically assumed. Under these circumstances, parents do not need to go to court, in order to establish themselves as legal parents. 

This presumption of parenthood occurs when: 

  1. The parents were married to each other at the time of their child’s birth.
  2. The parents were not married, but the father brought the child into his home, and both parents acted as though he was the father. 
  3. The parents married after the child’s birth, and the father either:
    1. Registered as the child’s acknowledged father;
    2. Consented to be listed on the child’s birth certificate; or,
    3. Consented to provide child support for the child. 

Tennessee’s presumption of parenthood is convenient for these couples, since it allows both partners to become full, participating parents without having to jump through any legal hoops to get there. 

Unfortunately, many unmarried parents are not covered under this presumption—specifically unmarried fathers, who will need to establish paternity before they can access their parental rights. 


Establishing Paternity

In Tennessee, a child’s paternity can be established all the way up until they turn twenty-one. (If the child is older than that, then you’re out of luck, and will need to initiate a formal adoption process if you want to be recognized as their parent.) 

Establishing paternity can be done either voluntarily (between the parents, themselves), or involuntarily (by way of a formal court process). Here’s a closer look at each. 


The easiest way to establish paternity is for each parent to sign a “Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity” (VAP). This is a legal document where each partner essentially consents that the other is their child’s legal parent.

This document can be signed any time after the child’s birth—either before or after you leave the hospital—and is effective immediately (meaning, it does not need to be ratified by the court, in order to be binding). For these reasons, a VAP is easily the fastest, cheapest, and simplest way for unmarried fathers to claim their parental rights.

In some situations, a VAP may be revoked. As long as certain requirements are met, either parent can take back their acknowledgment on this form, however, it won’t be legally revoked until approved by a judge. 



Occasionally, you get a father who doesn’t want to be recognized as their child’s parent, or a mother who wants to keep her child all to herself. 

Unfortunately, a VAP only works if both partners are willing. If one half of the duo refuses to acknowledge the other, then you’ll need to file a “Petition to Establish Parentage” with the court, in order to establish paternity. 

In Tennessee, either mother or father can file this petition, as well as the child (through a guardian). After receiving the petition, the court will order a DNA test, which involves getting your mouth swabbed with a Q-tip, and is about as invasive as blowing your nose. The DNA will then be sent to a lab, effectively eliminating the need for any kind of “he said” / “she said” arguments, altogether. 

Refusal to comply with the DNA test is generally taken as an admission of “guilt,” and the court will assign parentage, accordingly. 

With your child’s paternity definitively settled, the court can then move on to issuing orders of custody, visitation, and child support.


Establishing Paternity: You Can’t Pick and Choose

Before your petition to establish parentage, keep in mind that parental rights are an all or nothing kind of deal, and aren’t something you can pick and choose from like a buffet line.

For example, an unmarried father who wants visitation with their child cannot simply request a visitation schedule from the court, and be on their merry way. If granted, this access will come bundled with the whole gamut of parental rights and responsibilities. 

And the sentiment flows the other way, too… 

An unmarried mother who petitions to establish paternity—because, say, she needs the child support—may ultimately find herself having to share her child more than she anticipated, if the court grants her request. 

Bottom line? When it comes to parental rights, you cannot have the relationship without the responsibility, and vice versa. 


Paternity Attorney in Tennessee

Without parental rights, you have about as much power to influence your child’s life as a random stranger on the street. (In other words: none.) That’s why establishing paternity is so important for unmarried fathers. 

If you have more questions about how the court handles paternity in Tennessee, we want to hear from you. Call the Byrd Law team at (423) 304-6827, or contact us online, and let us help you claim these important rights in your child’s life.

Author Bio

Sam Byrd is the owner and managing attorney at The Law Office of Sam Byrd. With hands-on experience in divorce, family law, criminal law, and DUI/DWI cases, Sam has been serving clients in Tennessee since 2012. He graduated with a J.D. from the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law in 2012 and holds a B.S. in Legal Studies from the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga, where he graduated summa cum laude in 2009.

He began his legal career as a paralegal, working under his father’s guidance. Prior to that, Sam served in the United States Marine Corps as a member of the 2/7 Weapons Company stationed at 29 Palms, California.

Sam has received several accolades for his work, including being recognized as a Rising Star in Divorce & Family Law by Tennessee SuperLawyers in 2020, 2019, and 2018. He is also a member of The National Trial Lawyers’ Top 40 under 40, an exclusive professional organization for top trial lawyers under the age of 40. Sam’s commitment to continuous learning and improvement is demonstrated by his certifications in Trial Skills from the National College of DUI Defense in 2019 and 2018.

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