Tennessee Appellate Court Reverses Trial Court’s Paternity Name Change Ruling

Paternity suits are filed for a variety of reasons. It may be brought by an alleged father seeking custody or visitation, a mother seeking child support, or a child seeking to Paternityestablish a parental relationship.

In In Re Mattie H the State of Tennessee filed a petition with the Juvenile Court of Coffee County on April 28, 2014 on behalf of Mattie H’s (Child) Mother to establish paternity of Child. In her petition, Mother asked the juvenile court not just to establish paternity but also for an order establishing child support and retroactive child support. Following a hearing the trial court entered an order establishing paternity, setting Father’s child support obligation at $238.00 per month, and denying an award of retroactive child support. At a subsequent hearing, Father made an oral motion to change Mattie’s surname from Mother’s surname to Father’s. The trial court entered an order granting Father’s oral motion. In its order the trial court found that it was in the child’s best interest to have the father’s last name for the following reasons:

  • The father has had substantial contact
  • The father has on several occasions offered financial assistance to the child’s mother even though he has not paid child support
  • The child’s relationship with both parents will be enhanced and improved
  • Having the father’s last name will avoid harassment by future classmates and friends of the child and the child will not be embarrassed by having the mother’s last name. Mother filed a notice of appeal the same day.

Father subsequently filed a motion for additional findings of fact in support of the trial court’s judgment that changing Mattie’s surname was in her best interest. Following a hearing the trial court entered an order finding that additional facts were established by the testimony of the parties including:

  • it was important to change the child’s name now rather than later in life
  • Mother stated that she wanted Mattie’s surname to remain the same as Mother’s
  • the same degree of community respect is associated with Mother’s and Father’s surnames

Mother appealed the trial court’s ruling to the Court Of Appeals Of Tennessee At Davidson County asking the Court the sole issue that the court erred by ordering Child’s surname to be changed from Mother’s to Father’s.

In its review, the Court first looked at Tennessee Code Annotated 68-3-305 which provides, in relevant part:

If the mother was not married at the time of either conception or birth or between conception and birth, the name of the father shall not be entered on the certificate of birth and all information pertaining to the father shall be omitted, and the surname of the child shall be that of either:

(A) The surname of the mother;
(B) The mother’s maiden surname; or
(C) Any combination of the surnames listed in subdivisions (b)(1)(A) and (B).

The statute further provides that in any case in which paternity of a child is determined by a court of competent jurisdiction, the name of the father and surname of the child shall be entered on the certificate of birth in accordance with the finding and order of the court.

 In rendering its decision, the Appellate Court stated the following:

We note that Father testified that he had visited Mattie “at least ten (10) times” since her birth. We further observe that Mattie was approximately six months of age at the time of trial. Although the determination of what constitutes “substantial” may be somewhat subjective, we cannot agree with the trial court that Father’s visitation with Mattie on ten occasions for an undetermined amount of time over a six-month period constitutes “substantial” visitation. Additionally, it is undisputed that Father failed to pay child support until the State filed an action for support on behalf of Mother, was not present at Mattie’s birth, and did not contribute to Mother’s prenatal or birth expenses. The issue of Mattie’s surname was not raised until Father made an oral motion during the child support proceeding initiated by the State on Mother’s behalf.

The trial court made no findings to support its conclusion that Mattie would suffer harassment in the future if her surname remained unchanged, and there is nothing in the record to indicate that Father introduced any evidence to support that conclusion. Similarly, there is nothing in the record to support the trial court’s conclusion that changing Mattie’s surname would “enhance” Mattie’s relationship with either parent. Further, the parties agree that Mother’s surname and Father’s surname are equally respected in the community, and Mattie clearly has no preference at this juncture in her life.

The Court went on to state that Father simply failed to carry his burden of proof to demonstrate that changing Child’s surname is in her best interest per Tennessee Code Annotated 36-6-106. Accordingly, the Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s ruling regarding changing Child’s surname from Mother’s surname to Father’s.

If you have issues related to paternity that need resolution, or any other child custody concerns whereby you aren’t getting the proper support or time with your child, you should seek the services of an experienced family law attorney. Contact Donna Wagner to schedule a consultation.

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