Struggle to collect child support payments from your ex? Curse your ex for never being around for your children? You may believe it would just be easier to have him or her out of your life – and your children’s lives – for good. But seeking to have someone’s parental rights terminated isn’t always as simple as you might wish, nor does it always end up being beneficial to your children, or you.
A parent is a parent
“Termination of parental rights is seen by the courts and should be seen by litigants as an extremely serious matter. As a biological or adopted parent of a child, one has certain rights that cannot easily be taken away,” says Patrick Cooper of Sadek & Cooper Law Offices in Philadelphia. As such, the termination of parental rights is very rare.
While you may feel that your “deadbeat” ex isn’t worthy of the privilege of time with your child, the courts look on the matter differently, taking a child’s needs and well-being into account over a parent’s personal grievances. “Parental rights cannot be terminated in family court at the request of one parent simply because the other parent is a ‘bad parent.’ The inclination of the court is always to preserve the parental relationship if possible,” says John Griffith, partner at Griffith, Young & Lass Family Law in San Diego. He does point out, however, that in extreme cases of abuse or neglect, parental rights may be terminated. “These cases are not initiated by one parent or the other. These cases fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile dependency courts and are generally referred by child protective services,” says Griffith.
Proving parental neglect
Revoking parental rights – awarding sole legal and physical custody to the complaining parent – is akin to the “death penalty” of parenting, as it strips full decision-making authority and eliminates parenting time for the other parent. Consequently, modifications in child custody and parenting time are more likely to be the legalities that are adjusted when one parent questions the other’s dedication to their children. And even when parental rights are terminated, the banished parent might subsequently regain his or her rights. “The New Jersey courts view custody orders as temporary or non-permanent in nature, which leaves the door open for a parent to rehabilitate him or herself, cure whatever caused them to lose his or her share of custody, and re-apply to the court,” says Kelsey Mulholland, attorney with the Ruvolo Law Group in Morristown, New Jersey. “Courts are very much in favor of granting some parenting time, even if it has to be supervised by a third party.”
It’s critical to understand exactly what you’re giving up by pressing to terminate parental rights. While your life may be easier without the stress of your fellow parent’s behavior in the picture, there is the financial aspect to consider. “You are also terminating their parental responsibilities, including financial child support, and the child’s right to potentially take under a parent’s will or under state intestacy laws,” says Cooper. Ultimately, the question you must answer is this: Are you willing to give up this financial support, or cheat your child out of monetary benefits, just to be free of an ex?
Keep in mind that to win a case to terminate parental rights, you’ll need to present very persuasive evidence to the court, such as lack of contact, lack of support, abandonment, abuse, neglect, ongoing indifference, or failure to care for the child. “[You’ll] have to show that the other parent is a danger to the child or is actively trying to destroy the relationship between the child and the custodial parent,” says Mulholland. “For instance, if the non-custodial parent is trying to alienate the child from the custodial parent, the court could very well terminate all parenting time for the non-custodial parent and keep that parent out of the decision-making process for the child.” But even such evidence might not be sufficient. “Any shred of hope in the parent-child relationship will most likely result in a denial of the request to terminate parental rights,” says Griffith.
Stepping into a new role
Termination of parental rights may be slightly easier to achieve if the request is made in the context of an adoption, where a stepparent comes in to take the place of the biological parent. There are still hoops to jump through to achieve termination of parental rights before a stepparent can adopt a child. According to Griffith, the parent requesting termination must prove that the other parent has completely failed to contact the child, has failed to financially support the child, or has abandoned the child, or that the other parent is unknown and cannot be found.
“I have seen fathers and mothers give up parental rights just so they don’t have to pay child support,” says Griffith. “It is always a sad situation to observe from the outside. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for everyone involved personally.”