Facts: Mother and Father had a five-year relationship. By the time it ended, Father lived in Illinois and Mother in Tennessee.
Mother got pregnant. After Child was born, Father visited Mother and Child in Tennessee on several occasions. Father also voluntarily paid two child support payments of $400 each.
When Child was 14 years old, the State petitioned to establish paternity on Mother’s behalf. DNA testing confirmed Father’s paternity. The State then sought to establish both ongoing and retroactive child support from the date of Child’s birth.
Mother said Father was ashamed to have a child out of wedlock because of his family’s religious beliefs. She testified he pressured her to abort two prior pregnancies and paid for the abortions. She vehemently denied telling Father he was not Child’s parent. She claimed she asked him to take a paternity test on several occasions. According to Mother, Father stopped contacting her shortly thereafter.
Father testified he had doubts Child was actually his, and shortly after Child’s birth Mother told him he was not the father. He claimed he requested a paternity test on several occasions but Mother refused. Father admitted that although he knew there was a possibility the child was his, he never filed a paternity action.
The trial court found Father knew of his parentage and could have established paternity. In addition to ongoing child support, the trial court ordered Father to pay retroactive child support going back to Child’s birth totaling $160,000. The trial court also ordered Child’s last name to be changed to Father’s last name.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the child support but reversed the name change.
Retroactive child support. Tennessee law is clear that biological parents must support their children until they reach the age of majority. This obligation exists regardless of whether a court order exists or whether the parents were ever married.
In paternity cases, the Child Support Guidelines impose a presumption that retroactive child support will be awarded from the date of the child’s birth. That presumption can be rebutted, however, when the father was not aware of the child’s existence or “the equity between the parties” requires.
The Court found neither of these exceptions were supported by the evidence:
[A] review of the trial transcript  reveals that the court consider the equities between the parties. In fact, the [trial] court found that Father failed to establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that the equity between the parties justified a deviation from the Guidelines.
The [trial] court concluded that “Father did know he was the father of [Child] and he could have establish paternity, and the relationship of father and child, prior to the filing of Mother’s petition.”
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The evidence suggests that, even if Mother did later recant her statement that [Child] was Father’s child, Father should have known, or strongly suspected, that he was likely the child’s father. . . . Father had been in a relationship with Mother for five years, and he was frequently visiting Mother in Tennessee around the time the child was conceived. Further, the evidence shows that Father and Mother had likely conceived a child on at least one other occasion prior to the [Child] pregnancy. In the months following [Child’s] birth, both parents held her out as Father’s child, and even if he had some doubts concerning the child’s paternity, at least for a time, Father evidently believed [Child] was his. Father admitted that he believed there was a possibility that he was [Child’s] father, but he never petitioned a court to establish paternity.
There being no abuse of discretion, the trial court’s judgment for retroactive child support going back to Child’s birth was affirmed.
Child’s surname. Mother argued the trial court erred in ordering Child’s surname to be changed to Father’s surname because Father never requested such a name change.
Tennessee law requires that the decision to change a surname be found to be in the best interest of the child, and the party seeking the name change bears the burden of proof. A change of a child’s surname, therefore, is not an inevitable consequence of a paternity proceeding.
Because Father conceded that he did not present evidence that changing Child’s name was in her best interest, the Court determined the trial court erred by changing Child’s surname. Thus, the name change was reversed.
K.O.’s Comment: Had this litigation been initiated after July 1, 2017, the recent amendment to Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-2-311(a)(11)(G), which effectively creates a five-year limit on retroactive child-support awards in the absence of “good cause,” would have reduced Father’s child-support arrearage by approximately two-thirds, i.e., from $160,000 to roughly $56,000.
There is no dispute that Father had a legal obligation to provide financial support to Child from day one. The trial court rejected his claims that he did not believe Child was his. Under such circumstances, should he be relieved of his obligation to support a child he created? Our legislators think so. Do you?
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family-Law Attorney.