Paternity or “parentage” proceedings are the legal process by which a child is adjudicated to be the biological offspring of the father. In Tennessee, a child born outside of marriage must be legitimated through this process in order for the child to be recognized legally as the child of the father, unless the father has signed a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity at the time of the child’s birth. The fact that a father’s name appears on the child’s birth certificate raises a presumption that he is the child’s biological father, but it is a presumption that can be rebutted under certain circumstances.

The Juvenile Court, Chancery Court and Circuit Court in Shelby County all have jurisdiction to hear and decide paternity actions. Depending upon the facts of your case and the economic circumstances of both parents, there may be advantages to filing in one court as opposed to the other two. You should discuss this choice of forum with your attorney.

If a man believes or has reason to believe that he is the biological father of a child and he has not signed a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity concerning the child, he must take affirmative steps through filing a petition to establish paternity in order to preserve and protect his parental rights to the child. Failure to do so in a timely manner can jeopardize a father’s parental rights. Further, in Tennessee, a child born out of wedlock who has not been legitimated through a court proceeding is considered to be in the exclusive custody and control of the biological mother. Therefore, until a father legally establishes his rights to his out-of-wedlock child, he has no legal right to enforce visitation or contact with the child.

The biological mother of a child can also file a petition to establish the paternity of her child. There may be many reasons to do this. Once a petition to establish paternity is filed and the Court establishes, through court-ordered genetic paternity testing, that the child is the biological child of the father, the Court will set child support for the child and, usually, a custody and visitation order. The mother may also want to file to establish paternity so that her child will have the right to inherit from the father in the event of his death or to legally change the child’s name to have the father’s surname.