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The Termination of Parental Rights: How the Process Works

Michael Tierney
November 30, 2022

Raising a child is a lifelong commitment that does not necessarily end when the child is 18 and is no longer in their childhood home. No matter how old they get or where they are, your child is a part of you, and everything they do reflects how you raised them. For most, raising a child is one of the most fulfilling things we can do and helps us create a lasting impression on the world.

Some people do not realize that raising a child is not as simple as bringing them into this world and telling them how to live their lives. Other people simply are not qualified to raise a child due to underlying personality or legal issues.

While some people are unfit for parenthood, others have no desire to be involved in their child's life. These feelings can swell during divorce, where one parent is expected to pay child support to the custodial parent. Parents with little attachment to their child might want to absolve themselves of their financial responsibilities to the child's upbringing.

Paying child support when you have no intention of being a part of your child's life might be an unappealing concept and have you wondering if it is possible to absolve yourself.

Solution The only legal way to avoid paying child support is to terminate your parental rights.

What Are Parental Rights?

As the name suggests, parental rights are the permissions individuals possess to raise their children and make decisions. Parental rights go into effect once the child is born and are issued to the parents listed on the birth certificate. Parental rights allow the parents to decide how the child is raised, educated, and what medical treatment they receive.

Once parental rights are implemented, the parent has a legal responsibility to contribute to the child's welfare. This also means that major decisions about the child's health, education, etc., cannot be made unilaterally and requires approval from both parents so long as their parental rights are intact.

If one parent's name is absent from the birth certificate, they are deprived of their parental rights by default, though they can sue for rights later. Ultimately, parental rights are what the name implies and are the rights by which we raise our children. These rights are important to those with a positive relationship with their children and less so to those with a negative relationship with them.

Mother and Child

When getting divorced, parental rights remain a constant despite the separation, and both parents can maintain their rights to raise their children. The only change is in custody arrangements that might determine which parent hosts the child in their home.

Occasionally, one's parental rights are voided in divorce proceedings for various reasons. Parents who retain their parental rights and are not awarded custody are expected to provide financial assistance for the child. Retaining parental rights means you are obligated to provide child support payments regardless of visitation arrangements. This arrangement is not viable for some, and they seek a way to void their parental rights to absolve themselves of parental responsibility to the child. Which begs the question: how does one terminate their parental rights?

Can You Terminate Your Parental Rights?

The sanctity of parental rights is so strong that voiding them might seem impossible to most.

Solution While being a parent is an important duty, it is possible to terminate your parental rights and absolve yourself of responsibility to the child. However, just because you can terminate your parental rights does not mean it is a simple task.

Most judges are not thrilled by the idea of terminating the parental rights of a parent who only wants to void their responsibilities. To most officials, being a parent is a responsibility to be upheld no matter the situation. Nevertheless, there is a method to terminate your rights though you will need to make a very strong case to be successful.

Voluntarily terminating your parental rights begins with filing an agreement to surrender your parental rights and presenting it to the court. Once the agreement has been filed, you must attend a termination hearing where the court can assess your agreement. There is an important caveat to voluntarily surrendering your parental rights that might prevent your success.

Filing Parental Rights Termination Petition

To surrender your parental rights, your spouse has to file a petition to terminate them first. This petition is what you are agreeing to with the aforementioned form and must be filed for you to have a chance of terminating your own rights. Otherwise, a judge will not allow you to terminate your rights independently. The petition itself will vary by state, but they all ultimately have the same effect.

It is also important to remember that the exact laws governing parental rights will vary by state. Some states might have additional requirements for voluntarily surrendering your parental rights compared to others. The only way to be certain of how state law will affect your decision to terminate your rights is to consult with an attorney that operates in your state. They can offer more direct information regarding your state and circumstances.

With all this information in mind, there is another aspect to consider about the termination of parental rights. Not everyone wants to lose their place in their child's life and might have those rights terminated against their will.

Can Others Terminate Your Parental Rights?

While only a small percentage of parents want to terminate their parental rights, the vast majority will fight tooth and nail to keep them. Unfortunately, it is sometimes out of your control, and the judge might terminate your parental rights. As we mentioned, the only way to voluntarily void your parental rights is to willingly agree to a petition filed by your spouse. Those who agree to the petition often get their rights terminated and are absolved of any responsibility to the child.

The petition is a little more difficult to enforce against parents who want to maintain their parental rights, but it is possible. In these cases, it falls to your spouse to justify the termination of your parental rights.

Typically, the judge will only enforce the petition if your spouse can prove you are unfit to parent your child. The grounds a judge uses to terminate parental rights are:

  • The parent has abandoned their child and failed to maintain contact with them.
  • The parent chronically abuses the child physically, emotionally, or mentally.
  • The parent chronically neglects the child.
  • The parent has sexually abused the child.
  • The parent has chronically abused the child's siblings, stepsiblings, or friends physically, emotionally, or mentally.
  • The parent has a long-term mental illness that impairs their ability to care for the child responsibly.
  • The parent has a long-term addiction to drugs or alcohol.

If your spouse can prove any of the above, the judge might terminate your parental rights, and your spouse will be awarded full custody.

Emotionally Abusive Parent

For your spouse to involuntarily terminate your parental rights, they must file the petition mentioned previously. This petition is a written document outlining why you are allegedly unfit to be a parent to your child, and they will discuss any of the above reasons. This petition will also incur the same termination hearing discussed above, though this time, you will be against the petition rather than agreeing.

It is also important to note that you cannot be surprised by the petition in the middle of a hearing. As part of the process, your spouse is legally required to provide notice of their petition to you. The notification process varies by state but usually defaults to your spouse hand-delivering the petition to you. From there, you will have to file proof of service with the court if you want to have any chance of fighting the petition. Regardless of your stance, you will have to provide this proof of notice, as failing to do so gives your spouse more ammunition against you.

If your spouse fails to notify you of the petition and attempts to have it enforced in the hearing, they will lose a significant amount of credibility and will likely face legal repercussions. Alternatively, if you pretend not to have received the notice, you will face those repercussions instead. Ultimately, the petition will lead to the hearing where you and your spouse can make your respective cases about the termination of your parental rights. This will serve as your opportunity to counter the allegations made in the petition and preserve your parental rights, though you will need proof.

You should also consider that these regulations work in the inverse if you are attempting to terminate your spouse's paternal rights. It is possible that your spouse is the unfit parent, and you retain the same rights to file against them if they cannot be a proper parent to your child. That said, there is another important detail to consider about parental right termination.

Adoption and the Termination of Parental Rights

While this might seem irrelevant to divorce, adoption might play a role in the potential termination of parental rights. It is common for people to remarry following divorce, though the exact timeline to begin dating again can be a little murky for some people. Regardless, a second marriage is a common scenario that might occur with your spouse before it occurs with you.

If your spouse is the custodial parent, your child might spend significant time with their stepparent. In these circumstances, the stepparent may want to reinforce their relationship with your child by legally adopting them. If a stepparent begins the process of adopting their stepchild, the custodial parent and the stepparent must notify the biological parent of the intent. If you want to keep your parental rights, you might find letting a stepparent take the rights from you unacceptable.

Step Parent Filing For Adoption

Fortunately, the notification requirement allows you to either agree to terminate your parental rights and allow the adoption or object to the adoption altogether. In the former case, your parental rights are severed, and your spouse and the stepparent can continue the adoption process unimpeded.

In the latter case, you will again find yourself in a termination hearing where the court will assess the petition and either side with you or the stepparent. As previously mentioned, the hearing will review the petition and determine whether you are still fit to be a parent to your child. The adoption process is halted if the judge sees no reason to terminate your rights and upholds them.

The same criteria for involuntary termination are applied in this case. If you are not guilty of anything on the list in the previous section, your parental rights are likely safe. If, since the divorce, you have developed any of those behaviors, your rights are more likely to be severed, and the stepparent can continue with the adoption process.

Learn the Law

Raising a child is either a blessing or a curse depending on your perspective, though most people are firmly in the former camp. Regardless of your stance on child-rearing, your paternal rights are essential to maintaining a stake in your child's upbringing. If you are opposed to raising a child, you can terminate your parental rights only during the divorce process. If you want to retain your rights, you might have to fight to protect them from your spouse's machinations. Ultimately, the termination of your parental rights basically severs you from your child and prevents you from having a role in their life anymore.

Learn the Law

Getting the proper tools for a divorce case is essential if you want to be a part of your child's life. Divorce is one of the world's most complicated and frustrating civil proceedings and can easily leave your head spinning. Brushing up on information regarding divorce and potential scenarios that might come up can help give you the edge to protect your interests.

This is especially true if your spouse is the type to use underhanded techniques to get ahead. Fortunately, accessing information about divorce is simpler than ever, and you can find most information with a few taps on a keyboard. We realize divorce and the prospect of losing your child is an emotionally turbulent situation. We only hope this article has provided some assistance.

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Written By:
Michael Tierney

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