Tennessee Appeals Court Holds Birth Certificate Conclusively Establishes Paternity in Estate Case

In a recent opinion, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reviewed a case involving the laws of intestate succession and the rights of a child born out of wedlock. In the case of In re Estate of Davis (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 30, 2016), the decedent died intestate. Once the decedent’s estate was opened, his surviving children were identified as heirs. Two of the children’s birth certificates listed the decedent as their father. However, evidence of the birth certificate of the older son was overcome by sworn testimony from his mother establishing that he had no biological or legal relationship to the decedent. The birth certificate of the younger son, who was born out of wedlock, was accepted, and he was named as a rightful heir of the decedent.

One of the issues on appeal was whether the trial court erred in presuming that a child born out of wedlock is an heir-at-law to their purported father’s estate based solely on a birth certificate when the decedent had falsely acknowledged paternity on a birth certificate in the past.

At the time of the younger son’s birth in 1992, Tennessee law provided that if the parties submitted affidavits acknowledging paternity, the father may be listed on the birth certificate, and the child may take the surname of the father, notwithstanding the absence of a marital relationship between the parents. In 1994, the Tennessee legislature enacted a law providing that a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity completed pursuant to the aforementioned law may be considered to be a legal finding of paternity, which may also be given full faith and credit in other court proceedings in Tennessee. In addition, no judicial or administrative proceedings are permitted to ratify an unchallenged acknowledgment of paternity.

In In re Estate of Davis, the evidence indicated that the decedent completed the paternity affidavit in conjunction with his name being listed as the child’s father on the birth certificate. Although the 1994 law was not in effect at the time the child was born, the appeals court found that the legislature intended the sworn affidavit of paternity to receive the same legal status as that outlined in the subsequently enacted law. As a result, after five years have passed from the date of the execution of the voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the voluntary acknowledgment of paternity may only be challenged under a fraud theory. Since the appellant did not allege fraud in the procurement of the voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the birth certificate constituted a legal finding of the decedent’s paternity. The court, therefore, found that, regardless of a past birth certificate in which paternity was falsely acknowledged, the younger child was an heir-at-law pursuant to his birth certificate, and his portion of the estate vested in him immediately upon the decedent’s death.

An experienced estate planning attorney can assist you in preparing for the disposition of your property and assets once you pass on, and help prevent any issues that may arise in the administration of your estate. At the Nashville firm of MHPS, our skilled lawyers handle a variety of legal matters, including estate planning, probate litigation, personal injury claims, and family law cases. To discuss your situation with the knowledgeable legal professionals at MHPS, call (615) 800-7096 or contact us online.

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