In the state of Tennessee, unmarried fathers have to jump through a lot more hoops than unmarried mothers to protect their parental rights, especially when it comes to newborn children. This can be especially true if the child’s mother decides that she doesn’t want the father involved in the child’s life.
Once the messages of congratulations and unsolicited parenting advice from relatives have started to taper off, it’s probably time to get your legal ducks in row. So, what can you do to make sure that your legal relationship with your child gets properly established? Well, that depends (at least in part) on your relationship with the child’s mother (and no, it doesn’t have to be a romantic one!).
If you do happen to be in a relatively committed romantic relationship with the child’s mother, one of the easiest ways to establish your legal parenthood is to get your name on the child’s birth certificate, sign a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity at the hospital, and then live with and raise your child! This is sort of a no-brainer, so let’s talk about some of the more complicated situations….
What if the Mother Is Hostile?
If the child’s mother is hostile to your establishing a relationship with your child, you probably need to take additional steps to protect yourself. The number one thing you can do is be persistent. First, as soon as possible, start offering to pay child support. Document every offer (a nicely worded text message will do). If she will accept child support, pay some amount at least every month. Then, start asking for coparenting time. Be specific. Give a few days’ notice and ask to have the child for specific time periods, such as Thursday at 3 pm to Saturday at 6 pm. Again, document these requests, and don’t get discouraged if the mother refuses your requests. Just the fact of asking in good faith can help you in court. While you’re being persistent in asking for parenting time and paying support, talk to a lawyer about filing a parentage action. A parentage action is a lawsuit where the court legally recognizes your rights as a parent. It also allows you to get custody and child support issues litigated by the court, which takes the guesswork out of the process and limits the mother’s ability to control your relationship with your child.
What if the Mother Disappears?
Often the worst situation that unmarried new fathers find themselves in is when the mother simply disappears with the child. Of course, if you have any information or can track the mother down, you can use some of the same strategies listed above for dealing with hostility. But what happens if you don’t have much information at all? Even when it seems your child has fallen off the face of the earth, there are steps you can take, such as filing with Tennessee’s Putative Father Registry. Filing with the registry will at least ensure that, if the child ever enters the foster care system or is the subject of an adoption petition, you will get notice and a right to intervene in those proceedings. This is a good first step to take while you are taking other, more long-term steps to locate your child.