Unmarried Parents Tennessee Child Support Laws
Any conversation about Tennessee child support laws for unmarried parents necessitates a few words about paternity establishment and child custody, too. This is useful information to many families in Memphis, suburban Shelby County, and elsewhere in the state. Take a look at some recent statistics.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the 2012 U.S. birth rate was 45.3 per 1,000 unmarried mothers between the ages of 15 and 44. That would be 1,609,619 babies born to unwed parents in 2012. Nat’l Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 62, No. 9, Dec. 30, 2013. The percentage of births to unmarried women was the same in 2012 as it was in 2011 – 40.7%. That’s far less than the 51.8% of non-marital births during the peak 2007-2008 years.
The CDC’s preliminary data report for 2013 puts the number of births at 44.8 per 1,000 unmarried women in the same age group. That would be 1,605,643 births. Although the CDC noted a slight decline from the previous year, 2013 still brought more than 1.6 million babies to unmarried mothers. Considering the 3,957,577 total reported U.S. births in 2013, we are looking at a profoundly high number of single parents in this nation.
Tennessee Statistics for Unmarried Mothers
Take a look at Tennessee specifically. According to the Tennessee Dept. of Health statistics, in 2013 there were 79,954 live births in the state of which 44.0% (35,169) were to unwed mothers. In Shelby County there were 13,760 live births of which 62.4% (8,590) were to unmarried women.
Shelby County Single-Parent Families
Looking at the percentage and number of children by living arrangement, The Urban Child Institute reported on single-parent statistics for Shelby County in its 2012 Data Book. In Memphis, about 60% of children (84,711) live with an unmarried parent. In suburban Shelby County, about 22% of children live with an unmarried parent. (Statistics based on the American Community Survey 2010.)
With so many single parent households, Memphis family lawyers are often asked assist clients in child support actions. Child support begins with controlled calculations under Tennessee law.
Single-Parent Child Support Obligations Under Tennessee Law
Almost 10 years ago, Tennessee implemented an income shares model for determining child support obligations. When married parents file for divorce, separate maintenance, annulment, or legal separation, child custody must be decided and child support ordered.
There is nothing extraordinary about family law proceedings involving unmarried parents. Parents are parents, married to each other or not.Tennessee child support law is very clear – regardless of their marital status, both parents are equally and jointly responsible for the support of their child. The inquiry quickly becomes “How much child support should be ordered?”
How Much Do Unmarried Parents Pay in Child Support
In Tennessee, the monthly Basic Child Support Obligation (BCSO) is calculated using the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines. Whether married but separated, divorced, or unmarried, parents go through the same calculations. BCSO refers to a calculation reflected on the Tennessee child support worksheets. It is the starting point and includes consideration of child-rearing expenses for housing, food, transportation, education, and clothing, mainly.
● Adjusting the Basic Child Support Obligation
Adjustments are made to the BCSO for parenting time. Healthcare insurance premiums, uninsured medical expenses, and work-related child care costs are also added.
● Arriving at a Presumptive Child Support Order
The result is a Presumptive Child Support Order (PCSO). The PCSO is the appropriate “amount of support to be paid for the child derived from the parent’s proportional share of the BCSO, adjusted for parenting time, plus the parent’s proportional share of any additional expenses.” T.C.A. § 1240-2-4-.02(20). Unless there is an objection or deviation to the PCSO, it will be the order establishing child support.
● Deviating from the Presumptive Child Support Obligation
If circumstances warrant, deviations for cause may become add-ons to the PCSO. The amount and reason for any deviation in amount is determined on a case-by-case basis. Findings of fact should support any such deviation, which must be in the child’s best interests. In most cases, proving a 7% increase from the BCSO will be necessary. (Why deviate from the PCSO? There is a need to add enough to each parent’s support obligation to cover extraordinary educational expenses for a special needs child, for example, or cost of summer camp, music lessons, or travel expenses.)
● Mediating Child Support Issues
For some parents, limited mediation of child support issues can be useful. Although the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines control the minimum amount of child support, there is often room for flexibility over add-ons like travel, for instance, or funding an educational trust. Mediation is frequently used in family cases to help parents resolve custody, parenting time, and child support matters without the necessity of trial.
Tennessee Law on Children of Unmarried Parents
Under Tennessee law, the presumption is that primary custody will go to the mother in a case of non-marital birth. In the absence of a court order declaring “Mr. Y” to be the legal father, the child’s mother will have full custody. (There are exceptions, however. If the mother is proven to be an unfit parent or has abandoned her child, then other custodial arrangements may ordered. Among them is the possibility of foster care.)
The mother may allow the man she identifies as the father to spend time with the child, which is great. Maybe he’ll voluntarily contribute child support, too. But he will not have any legal right to parent the child, to visit the child, or to seek contribution of child support from the mother. Likewise, the child’s mother will not have the legal right to collect child support if he refuses to contribute financially or he loses interest in the child’s welfare and upbringing.
Caution: Voluntary Custody Agreements Are Temporary
Without a court order establishing this man as this child’s biological father, the two consenting adults have only a voluntary agreement. Friendly agreements can turn unfriendly at the drop of a hat. And an agreement between two lovers or former lovers is even less enforceable than a deal made on a handshake. (We are talking about raising a child here, not painting a barn.)
On the positive side, a voluntary custody agreement can be a helpful fix, albeit a temporary one, until paternity is established by court order. A voluntary arrangement can also establish the status quo, however, something the courts are inclined to perpetuate with custody orders if it is working well for the child. Talk to a lawyer.
Asserting Father’s Rights By Establishing Parentage
Paternity means legal fatherhood. When not married to the child’s mother, asserting a father’s right to custody and parenting time begins with filing a Petition to Establish Parentage. Likewise, for the child’s mother to receive child support pursuant to court order, she, too, can initiate court action to establish paternity of her child. The child can file a complaint to establish parentage, too, as can the State of Tennessee.
A father’s right to custody and parenting time with his son or daughter (previously known as visitation) requires a court order. Many people are under the assumption that the act of signing the birth certificate is sufficient to establish the man as the legal father. A step in the right direction, yes. But a signed Certificate of Live Birth is evidence that the man could potentially be the father, not proof that he is. Mere potentiality does not give rise to constitutionally protected parental rights. It takes more.
In the absence of a declaration of paternity by the court, any custody dispute between unwed parents will favor the mother. She has enforceable parental rights. He does not. (The older child’s wish to be raised by a putative “Dad” is not controlling either.) Legal fatherhood is what the man must have to assert parental rights or, conversely, to be held equally responsible for the care, custody, education, and support of his child.
The objective of paternity establishment proceedings is to determine whether the man is the child’s biological parent, either by voluntary acknowledgement or court decision. Establishing legal parentage by:
● Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgement
With a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity as the basis for the court’s order, the father can then pursue custody and parenting time. If he is granted final decision-making authority and is the primary residential parent (PRP), then the mother should pay support as the alternative residential parent (ARP). Rest assured, any parent who chooses not to embrace a relationship with his offspring will still be ordered to provide monetary support.
Before signing any paternity acknowledgment, we strongly recommend DNA testing to assure a positive match and to prevent paternity fraud. Yes, paternity fraud does happen and it can be difficult to undo. For information about establishing paternity and the dangers of paternity fraud, read Paternity Establishment and Paternity Fraud in Tennessee Child Support, Not Just One Man’s Nightmare.
● Court Order Following DNA Paternity Testing
DNA test results can either exclude the man as a biological parent, or include him by at least a 95% statistical probability (the highest probability would be 99.99%). If paternity is established by DNA evidence, then the judge will enter an order declaring the man to be the child’s real father. Child support orders will quickly follow.
Now that paternity is established and child support is ordered, some mothers will turn to state government for help collecting support.
For a more detailed discussion of a mother’s right to choose the child’s last name and a father’s option to contest it, see Unmarried Parents FAQs: Tennessee Child Custody.
Child Support Collection and Enforcement
The Tennessee Dept. of Human Services (DHS) is the state agency responsible for administering the child support program. The DHS child support office can help locate a parent, establish paternity of the child, establish child support orders, establish medical support orders for a child, and enforce such orders, among other things. (See the DHS Tennessee Child Support Handbook.)
In fact, any parent receiving Families First, Transitional Child Care, TennCare/Medicaid, or Foster Care should be referred to the child support office if the other parent does not live in the child’s home. DHS is motivated to locate the alternate residential parent (ARP) for collection purposes. Furthermore, absent good cause (such as domestic violence or child abuse) the benefits recipient, typically the mother, is required to cooperate with DHS in attempting to secure support money from the other parent (once parentage has been established). Failure to cooperate could cause the child support office to close the case. Needless to say, avoiding child support obligations is getting tougher and tougher in Tennessee.
Parenting Time for Both Parents
With paternity established, the father can assert his right to a relationship with his child through custody proceedings. A permanent parenting plan is the next step. Parenting plans and doing what is best for the child are the heart of Tennessee child custody proceedings.
A parent’s child support obligation is dependent upon many factors: parental income, parenting time, the child’s residence, child-related expenses, and so on. Get help.
References, Resources and More:
- Tennessee Child Support Laws
- Tennessee Child Support Law Answers to FAQs
- Tennessee Child Support Calculator & Links to App
- Tennessee Parenting Plans and Child Support Worksheets: Building a Constructive Future for Your Family
- For analysis, updates, commentary and case law summaries, view the Tennessee Child Support category of our MemphisDivorce.com Tennessee Family Law Blog.