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How to establish paternity in Tennessee

January 8, 2018
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In this post, we will discuss the importance of establishing paternity as well as how to establish paternity in Tennessee.smiling father holding infant child

What is paternity?

Paternity, also known as fatherhood, is defined as “the state of being someone’s father.

There are two parts to paternity: biological paternity and legal paternity.

In the legal field, establishing paternity refers to determining the legal father of a child, which is very different than establishing the biological father of a child.

We will go into this concept in more detail later.

Establishing legal paternity is significant as it determines the rights (visitation, custody, etc.) of the father as well as the obligations (child support, etc.) that the father has to the child.

The presumption of parentage

If a couple is married upon the birth of the child, legal paternity is automatically given to the husband of the mother.

This is known as the presumption of parentage and means the husband is the legal father.

It also means that his name will be the one used on the birth certificate.

However, this presumption of paternity can be challenged.

This is typically done using a DNA test.

It is important to remember that challenging this presumption must adhere to the requirements laid out in the Tennessee Code.

If the child’s parents are not married at the time of the birth, paternity must be established to determine the name of the legal father on the birth certificate as well as the rights that the father has relating to the child.

Three real-life examples

It is one thing to see these principles on paper, but how do they play out in real life, which is often a bit more complicated?

Example one:

One example that I recently experienced involved a married couple that was separated for an extended period of time.

While they were separated (but still legally married) the wife was living with another man and had a child with him.

According to Tennessee paternity laws, the woman’s husband was the legal father of the child, even though it was quite obviously not the biological child of the husband.

Even in a situation like this, where all parties agreed that the husband was not the father, it was necessary for us to “disestablish” paternity from the husband and establish legal paternity with the biological father.

At Ken Phillips Law we’ve seen many similar situations like this play out over the years, which highlights the importance of establishing legal paternity in Tennessee.

Example 2:

Another example of a case to establish paternity that we’ve worked on involves a same-sex couple that was legally married but separated for many years.

During this time, one of the women had a child with a man.

However, despite the fact that it was biologically impossible for her wife to be the father, the wife was legally considered to be the father by the state of Tennessee.

If the mother knew who the biological father of the child was, the process of establishing paternity would have been similar to the first example.

However, the woman had multiple partners during her time away from her wife and was unsure who the biological father was.

In this situation, the state of Tennessee still considered the wife to be the legal father since the biological father could not be found.

Example 3:

Adoption is a common situation where we see the above principles play out in real life.

One scenario that we often see when it comes to adoption is when a parent (the mother in this example) has a child with someone they are not married to (the biological father in this example) and wants their spouse (the stepfather in this example) to become the legal father of the child.

In order to establish paternity in this situation, the biological father would have to have his legal rights to the child removed — either voluntarily or involuntarily — through a process known as the Termination of Parental Rights.

The process would establish the stepfather as the legal father, transferring all legal rights to him.

This means that even if he and the mother get divorced in the future, he would still be legally responsible for the child, even though it was not his biological child.

But what about situations where a couple adopts a child that is not biologically related to either of them?

In these situations, it is still necessary for the legal rights of both of the biological parents to be terminated in order to establish paternity with the adoptive parents.

As you can see, although adoptions are joyful events, in which someone (or a couple) welcome a new child into their lives, it also requires someone to lose a child by giving up their legal rights.

Why is it important to establish paternity in Tennessee?

There are many reasons you may want to establish paternity.

However, according to Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, the most important reasons to determine a legal father include:


As a child grows and develops emotionally, it is important for them to know who their father and mother are, as this can give them a sense of identity as well as belonging.

Establishing paternity is also significant for the identity of the parents, as it gives them a sense of accomplishment as well as responsibility for their role in their child’s life.


Knowing who the father of the child is can be useful in determining if a child is predisposed to certain diseases and disorders.

Also, determining paternity can influence if a child is eligible to participate in the father or mother’s health insurance plan.


Determining paternity is also key in determining whether or not a child is eligible to receive child support and other benefits from their father.

Although child support is typically the chief concern of parents, establishing paternity can also affect a child’s eligibility to receive the father’s social security benefits, veterans benefits, health and/or life insurance, as well as inheritance rights.

How do you establish paternity in Tennessee?

In Tennessee paternity is either “voluntary” or “involuntary,” and can be established until the child turns 21.


To establish paternity in Tennessee voluntarily, both the father and mother must be in agreement that the father is the biological parent of the child.

If this is the case, establishing paternity is as simple as both parties signing a “Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity,” which can be completed in the hospital at the child’s birth or at a later date at the local health department, child support office, or Office of Vital Records.

This form must be signed by both parties in front of a notary and is then submitted to the Office of Vital Records.

After the form is completed and filed, the legal fatherhood is established.


If both parties are not in agreement on the biological father of the child, the process becomes “involuntary.”

If this is the case, paternity must be established within the court system.

The process is initiated when either the father, mother, child (with a guardian ad litem) or Tennessee Department of Human Services files a “Petition to Establish Parentage.”

In this process, a DNA test may be ordered by the court if either party is unsure of or denies paternity.

This involves a simple cheek swab of the father, mother, and child, that is then analyzed by a laboratory.

When the court receives the definitive results it can then make a clear determination of the legal father and issue an order of parentage.

Once the legal father is determined, his name is added to the birth certificate of the child.

During paternity proceedings, the court may also decide to rule on issues of child support, visitation rights, and child custody.

As you can see the process of establishing paternity in Tennessee can be complicated.

The team at Ken Phillips law is experienced with assisting parents in establishing paternity, whether it is to secure visitation rights or to establish a legal obligation for child support.

Contact us today to see how we can assist you through this important, and often stressful process.

Ken Phillips
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