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Who Gets Child Custody When the Parents are Unmarried?

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Determining Custody in Tennessee

No matter the circumstances surrounding a child custody case, a judge will ultimately make a custody determination that will be in the child's best interest. However, if the parents are unmarried, additional factors must be considered, and steps must be taken.

Establishing Paternity

According to Tennessee law, an unmarried woman who gives birth is automatically given full legal and physical custody of the child and does not need additional steps to establish maternity. For the father to establish paternity, he has to take steps beyond simply signing the child’s birth certificate. An unmarried father should file a petition to establish the child’s paternity; he may also be required to take a DNA test.

What is the Custody Process for Unmarried Parents?

Once paternity is established, an unmarried father can begin to seek his legal right to custody of his child. The parents can decide on custody outside of any legal hearing, but if they are unable to come to an agreement, then mediation will be necessary. If the parents cannot agree to terms during mediation, then the court will schedule a hearing with a judge who will listen to arguments and determine what is in the best interest of the child.

How Does a Judge Decide Custody?

At the hearing, the judge will pay close attention to each parent’s arguments for custody and will make a decision based on several factors:

  • Ability of each parent to provide financial, emotional, and physical support for the child.

  • Child’s connection with each parent.

  • Each parent’s involvement in the child’s life up to the hearing.

  • Overall well-being of each parent, including health and stability.

  • Potential for future parenting opportunities of each parent.


Once each parent has stated their case, the judge will assign custody and arrange a court order that each parent must follow.

Can Custody Be Modified?

If circumstances have changed, such as a parent gets married or has a change in income, a parent may seek a modification to the custody order. In this case, the judge will hear why a parent is seeking a modification and will make a decision based on the same factors and any adjustments made to each parent’s situation.

Seek Legal Counsel

If you are facing a child custody battle, you should have the right legal counsel on your side. Peterson White, LLP has the experience required to help you win your rights as a parent. Call us at (855) 919-4124 to speak with a family law attorney today.