Area of Law:
Paternity is the acknowledgement, legally and socially, of a parental relationship between a father and his child. At common law, a child born during a marriage is presumed to be the husband's child, although this presumption may be overcome by evidence that the child was not the husband's child.
Establishing paternity can provide many benefits to the child, including:
- Knowledge of their identity
- Legal right to child support
- Potential relationship with biological father
- Eligibility for medical and life insurance benefits
- Rights to an inheritance, Social Security and veteran's benefits
- Access to the father's medical history
- Positive influence of a father figure
If paternity becomes an issue, either the mother, father, or the child may petition the court to make a determination. The petition, or lawsuit, may be brought by a private individual or by the state. In Tennessee, paternity may be established until a child turns 21.
It is common for a child's mother to bring a paternity action in order to obtain child support from the biological father. The state may commence a lawsuit through a prosecutor's office when the mother applies for public assistance so that the state can be reimbursed for the aid given. An individual who is identified as a child's father in a paternity suit is called a putative father. When the court names the putative father as a defendant in a paternity case, he has a choice of either consenting to the entry of a paternity judgment or contesting the action.
If the father acknowledges paternity of his child by consent, he must sign a document called an Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity. When the putative father signs the order, he consents to paternity for life, and a court is unlikely to allow him to avoid the responsibilities of paternity, including the payment of child support, even if it is later proven that he is not the biological father. An individual who is being asked to sign such an order should not do so without seeking the advice of a family lawyer.
If the putative father contests paternity, a DNA test is usually performed to determine the possibility of paternity. This is done by obtaining a cheek swab from the father, mother, and the child. The percentage of probability of DNA tests vary from state to state, but are usually considered 95 to 99 percent reliable and are also effective in excluding a person who is not the father. DNA tests are routinely admissible as evidence in paternity cases.
Most states, including Tennessee, have laws that give courts the power to order the putative father to submit to DNA testing. A putative father can be found in civil contempt for refusal to obey a court order, resulting in a fine and/or jail time. Paternity can also be established by default when the putative father refuses to attend a court hearing or go for paternity testing after he was properly served with notice.
Paternity fraud occurs when a man is falsely identified as the only possible biological father of a child because the mother withholds information that there may be more than one putative father. If you are served with paternity papers, you should insist on DNA testing since it is estimated that nearly 33 percent of men who have been DNA tested are found not to be the biological father of the child.
In some states, paternity can also be established by publication of the putative father's name in the newspaper. Check with a family attorney in Tennessee about the ramifications of refusing to take a paternity test.
Although all states have some sort of uniform parentage act, only Delaware, Texas, Washington, North Dakota, Utah, Oklahoma, and Wyoming have adopted a version of the most recent paternity law, the Uniform Parentage Act of 2002. This federal law provides a format for voluntary acknowledgement and standards for genetic testing.
For more information about paternity laws in Tennessee, go to the Tennessee Department of Human Services Child Support Handbook.