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Unmarried fathers' rights to child custody and visitation

Unmarried fathers' rights to child custody and visitation are often a point of discussion and debate on various forums. Every state has its own set of definitions for terms such as "father" or "parent," and those definitions can have a significant impact on how courts consider child custody or visitation cases involving an unmarried father. Recently, a post on this blog discussed those definitions and provided an overview of the rights of unmarried fathers in Tennessee.

For unmarried fathers, the first step toward obtaining child custody or visitation rights is establishing paternity. This requires both parents to file an acknowledgement of paternity with the concerned state agency or court either at the time of birth or later. If the paternity is disputed, court-ordered DNA testing determines a child's biological father. Once a father completes either of these two processes and establishes paternity, he can file a petition seeking child custody or visitation rights.

The father and mother then have the option of preparing a parenting plan that will be in the best interests of the child. The parenting plan can include a vast array of details pertaining to various aspects of the arrangement such as primary custody of the child, non-custodial parent's visitation schedules, decisions pertaining to a child's education, health, religion, and procedures for modifications of the parenting plan. Once finalized, the plan is submitted for a judge's approval.

If the parents disagree with a parenting plan, either may approach the court. In such cases, courts conduct a "best interests" analysis before ordering a parenting arrangement. Courts in Tennessee presume that both parents play an important role in a child's upbringing and therefore, prefer to issue joint custody orders when appropriate. To avoid a joint custody arrangement, a parent may present evidence in court establishing that the other parent's involvement in the child's upbringing may have detrimental effects.

Unmarried fathers' rights have evolved in recent years and courts in Tennessee recognize those rights, a benefit for many fathers. However, an unmarried father gaining sole custody of a child is still fairly uncommon. To win sole custody, a father usually needs to convince the court that he is the child's primary caregiver. Moreover, he may need to convince the judge that the mother is an unfit parent and her presence can have detrimental effects on the child's best interests.

Source: FindLaw, "Child Visitation, Child Custody and Unmarried Fathers," Accessed on Aug. 26, 2014

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