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How to Terminate Parental Rights

A termination of parental rights is a court order that permanently severs the legal relationship between a parent and a child. After a parent’s rights are terminated the parent will lose child custody, child support, and child visitation (parenting time) rights to that child. A termination of parental rights also means the parent will no longer be responsible for the child’s future child support, well-being, or misconduct (tort liability). The termination of parental rights is a final decision and cannot be reversed without a showing of fraud. Termination of parental rights may be voluntary or involuntary.

Note: Unpaid child support payments that accrued before a parent’s rights are terminated remain as outstanding child support debt(s) after the termination of parental rights.

Voluntarily v. Involuntarily Termination of Parents’ Rights

Involuntary termination of parental rights is usually found in four situations: 1) in a juvenile dependency action where the child’s parents are found to have abused or neglected the child and reunification of the child and the child’s parent(s) is not possible, 2) during a stepparent adoption case, where a child’s legal parent does not consent to the stepparent adoption but the stepparent can show that the child’s legal parent is unfit, unavailable, and/or has legally abandoned his or her child, 3) where the child’s legal parent cannot be found, and 4) where the legal parent does not consent to the termination of his or her parental rights.

Involuntary termination of parental rights may be based on any of the following: 1) Abandonment of the child; 2) Neglect or abuse of the child; 3) Unfitness of the child’s parent (disability due to alcohol, controlled substances, moral depravity, criminal history, etc.); or 4) Parent declared mentally or developmentally disabled or mentally ill.

Note: In abandonment cases, in order for the parent’s parental rights to be terminated the parent must have intended to abandon the child (as opposed to merely being absent from the child’s life); however, failure to communicate or provide for the child may serve as circumstantial evidence of the parent’s intent to abandon the child.

Special Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights Cases

Guardianship Cases: For Guardians interested in terminating a child’s parental rights based on abandonment the guardian must show that the child’s parent(s) left their child with the guardian for a period of at least six months without communicating with the child or providing financial support for the child. The legal parent(s) must also have intent to abandon their child, but lack of financial support and/or communication can serve as evidence that the parent(s) intended to abandon their child. See Guardianship for more information.

Stepparent Adoption Cases: For stepparents interested in terminating the parental rights of a child’s legal parent based on abandonment the stepparent must show that the child's legal parent has neither communicated with the child for at least a year and has provided no financial support for the child. The child’s legal parent must also have intended to abandon his or her child but the intent to abandon a child can be shown by a lack of financial support. See Stepparent Adoption for more information.

Note: In order for a child’s stepparents to legally become the child’s adoptive stepparent the parental rights of the child’s birth parent must first be terminated. The termination of parental rights in a stepparent adoption case can be by voluntary or involuntary. In an involuntary stepparent adoption case, if the legal or biological parent has had some, but very little contact, with the child, or has provided some, but very little financial support, the stepparent may still proceed on an abandonment theory. The court does not allow legal parent(s) to disrupt a stepparent adoption with a few half-hearted attempts at child visitation, communication, or support.

Juvenile dependency cases: If parents fail to provide and/or protect his or her child, and/or the parent abuses or neglect his or her child, that parent, or parents, may be subject to a juvenile dependency action whereby the parent(s) may have his or her parental rights terminated. Legal parents are given several opportunities to complete reunification plans and services; however, if the parent(s) is unable to reunite safely with the child, the parent(s)’ rights may be terminated as soon as an appropriate foster parent is found. See Juvenile Dependency Court for more information.

Voluntary termination of parental rights: Voluntary termination of parental rights is a much easier and faster process than the involuntary termination of parental rights process. Voluntary termination of parental rights means that the legal parent is consenting to the termination of his or her parental rights and often takes place in the context of a stepparent adoption or guardianship case.

Note: As a general rule, the court only terminates parental rights when there is another person who desires to step in and take on the responsibilities of a parent such as a stepparent, guardian, sibling, or foster parent. If terminating the parent’s parental rights would leave the child with only one person who is legally responsible to care for and financially support the child then the court is less likely to terminate the legal parent’s parental rights.

Adoption Agency Cases: In California, a birth mother can consent to her child’s adoption through an adoption agency after she has been discharged from the hospital. The birth mother must be given some time to change her mind after the child's birth (usually ten to thirty days depending on whether the adoption is through an agency or through an independent person), unless the mother signs a Waiver of the Right to Revoke consent.

Note: Unmarried fathers who do not consent to an adoption of their biological child must timely file for paternity rights to the child. See Father’s Rights, Paternity Suit, Stepparent Adoption, and Juvenile Dependency.

How to Terminate a Parental Rights

If the child's legal parent does not consent (involuntary termination of parental rights), or the whereabouts of the child’s legal parent is unknown, the prospective foster parent, stepparent, or guardian will have to file a Petition to Terminate the legal parent’s parental rights. A legal parent has the right to object to the termination of his or her parental rights by filing a Response to the Petition to Terminate Parental Rights. A judge will decide on whether or not to terminate the parent(s)’ parental rights based on several factors, including relevant California law, argument and evidence presented in court, and investigation and mediation reports provided to the court by third party investigators and mediators.

Note: Involuntary termination of parental rights is a very complex legal matter that should only be handled by an experienced family law attorney.

To learn more about the termination of parental rights, juvenile dependency court, stepparent adoptions, or guardianship, contact our divorce and family law attorneys today for a free consultation with an experienced lawyer (not a paralegal). Call today!

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