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Do unmarried fathers have automatic custody rights?

Many people go into custody disputes informed only on the basis of anecdotes from friends and family, and this can lead to a bit of a shock when they find out that Tennessee's custody guidelines are not what they first thought. Custody can get particularly challenging to navigate in cases where the parents were never married.

Some fathers assume that if their name is on the birth certificate or there is a declaration of paternity that they automatically have some custody rights. However, this is not true in cases where the couple was never married. Unless there is a court order in place that has been signed by a judge and names the father, the mother retains sole custody — both physical and legal — of the child.

In order to obtain the court order needed to begin a bid for custody or visitation rights, the father must get paternity established. If there is uncertainty about who the father is, a paternity test can be administered. Sometimes, mothers will deny that the man is the father in an attempt to avoid having to share custody, but if the man has reasonable grounds to believe he may be the child's biological father, he may be able to get the courts to order a paternity test, and the mother would have to comply.

Once paternity has officially been established, the father can begin going through the legal channels to get custody rights or court-ordered visitation. If the father has any questions about what this process entails or believes the mother may attempt to fight the custody, it can be helpful to talk to a family law attorney.

Source: Legal Aid of East Tennessee, "Basic Custody Guide," accessed Oct. 09, 2015

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