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Child Custody

The Importance of Formalizing Families: A Cautionary Tale

In 2012, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that about 20% of adults ages 25 and older had never been married. This statistic seems to reflect a growing (though always present) trend toward informal family relationships over formal ones. There are many reasons people choose not to formalize their family. Some have been burned by an ugly divorce in their past. Others worry about child support. Some find government intrusion into their family relationships to be distasteful. For many, though, the decision not to formalize family relationships is more a matter of maintaining the status quo and avoiding inconvenience than any proactive decision. Unfortunately, there are real dangers to failing to formalize your family, because it can put you outside the realm of most legal protections.

One of the scariest examples of this, in my opinion, is the problem of the “de facto parent.” Tennessee law makes very sharp distinctions about who does and does not have a right to participate in the care and custody of a child. Legal and biological parents can appeal to the courts to protect their rights to visit, care for, and make decisions about their children. “De facto parents,” or anyone that doesn’t fit into this narrow definition (even if they have raised the child since birth!) cannot. The case of Pippin v. Pippin, which was decided by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in 2020, is a perfect example of the devastating consequences of this body of law.

In the Tennessee case of Pippin v. Pippin, two unmarried women named Christina and Sandra made a mutual decision to have a child together through artificial insemination. Of course, only one woman—Christina—could carry the baby. However, once the child was born, both parents participated equally in raising them. The child grew up calling both women “Momma” and they both behaved in every respect as a parent would be expected to for many years. However, when the child was five years old, Christina and Sandra broke up. As sometimes happens in these sorts of circumstances, one parent—Christina—decided she did not want to give the other parent any time with the child. So Sandra turned to her local court system for help, and filed a petition to establish visitation with the child.

Tennessee law gives rights to child custody and visitation for the following people: biological parents, potential adoptive parents, adoptive parents, grandparents, stepparents, and married parents of children born of donated embryo transfer. Sandra did not fall into any of these categories. Although she had raised the child since birth, she wasn’t the child’s biological mother, she never married the child’s biological mother, and she didn’t formally adopt the child. So, the court refused to even consider her petition for visitation under a legal doctrine called “standing.”

Pippin v. Pippin serves as a cautionary tale. When it comes to child custody laws in Tennessee, love alone isn’t enough, and a “de facto” parent is a dangerous thing to be. The good news is, many people have the option to formalize their family through either marriage or adoption, and by doing so can proactively bring themselves and their children under the protection of Tennessee law. If you think you might need an adoption or would like to hear more about the process for formalizing your family, call our office to speak with an attorney about your options. Initial consultations are always free.