Termination of Parental Rights

A legal termination of parental rights differs significantly from simply agreeing to not seek custody and/or visitation with a child. While parents are typically free to choose to live apart from or refrain from visiting with their children, they likely have a legal right to do so if they so choose. On the other hand, a legal termination of parental rights permanently prohibits a parent from having any legal rights to the child, including the right to custody of the child, the right to visit or have any contact with the child, and the right to have any input in decisions made regarding the child. Termination of parental rights also relieves a parent of the responsibility to financially support his or her child. Every state has different laws that govern the termination of parental rights, and there are different situations in which a court may order that a person’s parental rights be terminated.

One of the most common proceedings in which parental rights are terminated is through abuse and neglect proceedings. While the specific circumstances under which termination of parental rights can occur varies somewhat from state to state, some common situations include abuse and/or neglect of a child by a parent, placing the child in danger by engaging in criminal activity, leaving the child without a home due to the incarceration of both parents, or being unable to care for the child due to alcohol and/or drug dependency. In these types of cases, the state alleges that a parent is unable or unfit to care for his or her child, and that it would be in the best interest of the child that parental rights be terminated. Prior to a termination of parental rights occurring, the state usually must have made some effort to involve the parents in the abuse and neglect proceedings, and engage the parents in working toward reunification with their children. It is only when these efforts fail, or when parents refuse or choose not to cooperate with the state regarding reunification with their children, that a termination of parental rights occurs.

Another circumstance in which parental rights are terminated is through adoption proceedings. In a routine adoption case, adoption proceedings legally and permanently terminate the biological parents’ parental rights to the child. It is common for biological parents to consent to an adoption, thus voluntarily terminating their parental rights. However, some states have laws under which a biological parent’s consent to adoption is not required in some situations, usually because the parent has failed to maintain contact with or financially support the child for a lengthy period of time. Likewise, in a stepparent adoption situation, the stepparent becomes the legal parent of the child through adoption proceedings, which results in the termination of the biological parent’s parental rights, whether it occurs voluntarily or involuntarily. In this situation, if the biological parent agrees to the stepparent adoption, or if the biological parent’s consent is not required by law, then the adoption will be granted, and the biological parent’s rights will be terminated, so long as the court agrees that the adoption would be in the best interests of the child.

Whatever the circumstances leading to a termination of parental rights, all courts use the standard of “best interest of the child” in determining whether termination of parental rights is appropriate. Some states’ laws regarding this standard are very general, in stating only that the child’s safety, health, and welfare must be protected. In other states, however, the court must consider a specific list of factors in determining whether termination is in the best interests of a child. Some common factors considered by courts under the best interest of the child standard include the age of the child, the specific health needs of the child, the child’s desires if the child is of a certain age, and the mental and emotional needs of the child.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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