In many child custody cases, the court has to decide parenting time for two biological parents. However, over the decades, the family unit has evolved. Many children are now part of blended families and cared for by non-biological parents. This category can include step-parents, a grandparent, or close family friends. While there are rarely issues when the biological parent and non-biological parent are on good terms, heated conflict may arise when the biological and non-biological parents have a falling out.
In such cases, non-biological parents frequently come to court to ask the judge to award them custody rights over the child. Unlike in a growing number of states, non-biological parents have relatively few options when it comes to securing a legal relationship with the child in Tennessee. Only individuals falling within very narrow categories have standing to seek parental rights. What follows is a discussion of who may and who may not seek custody for non-biological children.
What Is De Facto Parentage?
Many states around the country award parties with no legal relationship to a child not only visitation rights but full parental rights and responsibilities. Such action is not based on any specific statute, but rather, on a legal concept referred to as de facto parenthood. One deemed a de facto parent has the same rights and responsibilities to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of the child as a biological parent. The reasoning is that when an unrelated individual acts in every way like a parent, including cultivating a strong attachment with the child, severing the relationship would be extremely harmful to the child’s development.
No De Facto Parentage in Tennessee
Tennessee courts have repeatedly held that only parents with a biological or legal relationship with a child may seek custody in court. For example, in a 2013 case In re: Hayden C. G-J., the Court of Appeals in Nashville determined that an adoptive mother’s partner of several years lacked standing to sue for custody rights because she did not fall under the definition of a legal parent. This was the case even though the appellant had maintained a strong relationship with the four-year-old child since birth and performed daily parental duties.
The Court emphasized that only persons listed in Tennessee Code Annotated 36-1-102 could be legal parents. As written, the statute only recognizes
- The biological mother of a child;
- The husband of a biological mother if the child was born during the marriage or within 300 days after divorce;
- A man who attempted to marry the biological mother within 300 days of the child’s birth;
- A man adjudicated as the legal father of the child by any court in the state or in another state;
- A man who has signed a sworn acknowledgement of paternity; and
- An adoptive parent of a child or adult.
Tennessee law is somewhat antiquated with respect to de facto parentage. However, this area of law is continually developing. Non-biological de facto parents should contact an experienced Tennessee family legal matters lawyer to help determine their options.
What About Adoptive Parents?
When adoptive parents divorce, Tennessee courts allocate parenting time the same way they do with divorcing biological parents: pursuant to the best interests of the child. In Tennessee, adoptive parents have all the same rights as biological parents. Said rights include the right to make medical and educational decisions impacting the child and the right to determine the child’s religious upbringing.
Adoption commonly occurs at the same judicial hearing where one or both biological parents sever their legal relationship with the child. Courts call this procedure a termination of parental rights (TPR).
Does a TPR Have to Be Voluntary?
TPRs do not have to be voluntary. When a biological parent’s rights to a child terminate, the legal relationship between that person and the child ends. This termination can take place either voluntarily or involuntarily. For example, a parent can voluntarily terminate their parental rights and give their child up for adoption. On the other hand, the court can determine that a parent is unfit to parent a child and involuntarily terminate the parent’s legal rights.
What Are the Grounds to Terminate a Biological Parent’s Rights?
In Tennessee, a TPR can be based on the following statutory grounds:
- Substantial noncompliance with a parenting plan;
- The child has been removed from the parent’s house via a court order for a period of at least six months, and (a) conditions that would subject the child to further abuse or neglect persist, (b) said conditions are not likely to change in the near future, and (c) continuing the child’s relationship with the biological parent prevents the child’s access to a stable, permanent, and safe home;
- The biological parent committed severe child abuse against the child or another child in the home;
- The parent has been sentenced to serve two or more years in prison for abusing the child;
- The biological parent has been sentenced to ten or more years in prison, and the child is under eight years old;
- The biological parent has been convicted of killing the child’s other parent or legal guardian;
- The parent is mentally incompetent to care for and supervise the child; or
- The child was conceived out of rape.
It’s crucial to note that this list is not exhaustive. However, Tennessee courts most frequently cite the grounds listed above.
Contact an Experienced Child Custody Lawyer
Since 1860, Batson Nolan PLC, has been providing exceptional legal services to clients in Tennessee, Kentucky, and beyond. Our seasoned family legal matters attorneys have successfully guided numerous non-biological parents through the adoption process, including TPR hearings. If you are a non-biological parent facing a contested adoption with the biological parent, contact our office for a free consultation today. Our attorneys are with you every step of the way.