Termination of Parental Rights | Voluntary & Involuntary

Every U.S. state and several U.S. territories have laws about the termination of parental rights by a court. A parent could have their parental rights taken away for many reasons. They could also give up their parental rights in some circumstances.

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Losing parental rights is different from losing custody, which does not affect the legal relationship between parent and child. The other parent receiving sole custody does not terminate your parental rights, even if you sign over custody.

When a parent loses their parental rights, it means:

  • The parent-child relationship no longer exists.
  • The parent no longer gets to raise the child.
  • The parent has no right to visit or talk with the child.
  • The parent no longer has to pay child support.
  • The parent is removed from the child's birth certificate.
  • The child can be adopted without the parent's permission.

Before terminating rights, the court must have clear and convincing evidence that ending the parent-child relationship is in the child's best interest. Regaining parental rights after they're terminated is rare, but certain states allow it.

Keep in mind that procedures may vary by location.

Grounds for termination of parental rights

Potential reasons for losing parental rights vary by state and territory. They generally include the following:

  • Severe or frequent abuse or neglect
  • Sexual abuse
  • Abuse or neglect of other kids living in the same household
  • Abandonment
  • Long-term mental illness or deficiency
  • Long-term alcohol or drug-induced incapacity
  • Failure to support or maintain contact with the child
  • Felony conviction for violence against the child or a family member

There must also be proof that the parent hasn't tried to correct the conditions that make it unsafe for the child to have contact with them.

Gender is not a factor. A mother or father can lose parental rights, or both parents can if neither are fit to care for the child.

How to terminate parental rights of a noncustodial parent

The custodial parent, the child's guardian or a family member can petition the court to terminate the noncustodial parent's parental rights.

They must show evidence that there are grounds for termination (unless the termination is voluntary) and that it would be in the child's best interest.

Before terminating rights, the court will consider whether the noncustodial parent:

  • Tried to establish a relationship with the child
  • Paid or currently pays child support
  • Abandoned the other parent while they were pregnant or abandoned the child after birth
  • Is a danger to the child's well-being

Courts prefer not to terminate the rights of biological parents unless it is absolutely necessary. Instead, they might recommend an alternative, such as the noncustodial parent taking parenting classes.

Most states require the noncustodial parent to receive notice before a case can proceed.

Voluntary termination of parental rights

It's difficult to relinquish parental rights (i.e., voluntarily give them up), but it's possible.

If another person files a petition to terminate the parent's rights, the parent could simply allow the termination to happen — so long as a judge finds it's in the child's best interest.

Another way is for the parent to sign over their rights to someone willing to adopt the child, such as the child's stepparent.

Involuntary termination of parental rights

In involuntary termination, state agencies and the court work together to figure out whether the situation calls for one or both parents to lose parental rights.

The state must file a petition to terminate parental rights if:

  • A child has been in foster care for longer than the state allows (usually 15 of the last 22 months), and their parent isn't trying to get the child back.
  • The court determines the child is an abandoned infant.
  • The court determines the parent is guilty of murder or was involved in a murder or voluntary manslaughter.
  • The parent committed felony assault on the child or another one of their children.

The process to terminate rights involuntarily can also begin if someone reports child abuse or neglect to Child Protective Services (CPS). In some states, professionals like lawyers and medical professionals must report evidence of abuse or severe neglect.

If need be, CPS can remove the child from the offending parent's home and temporarily assume legal custody. The child may go to foster care if no relative or third party is fit to act as a caregiver while the court determines how to proceed.

Soon after this process begins, the court decides in a hearing whether the child should return to their parent's home. If not, the parent will have to work with a caseworker to correct the behavior or conditions that led to the child's removal. The court may provide legal representation for the parent and child if they cannot afford it.

After a time period set by the state (usually one year), either the court or the parent can request a hearing on the parent's progress. If the court determines the parent won't be able to regain custody, parental rights are terminated. The child may go to foster care, be put up for adoption or live with their other parent or their legal guardian.

Parents can appeal the termination of their rights.

Exceptions for terminating rights

Thirty-four states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands have exceptions that prevent the termination of a parent's rights. Some that may apply include:

  • It's not in the child's best interest
  • The child lives with another relative
  • The state didn't provide the parent with the support needed to regain custody of their child
  • An older child says rights shouldn't be terminated (They must have the mental capacity and maturity to make such a decision.)

Reinstatement of parental rights

Depending on the location, a parent can get their parental rights back if the state doesn't permanently place the child within a certain time frame. Reinstatement must be in the child's best interest, and the parent must:

  • Show they've made progress toward correcting the circumstance that caused the termination
  • Be willing to take the child in again
  • Agree with the child that it should happen

In some states, reinstatement is only possible in cases involving older children.

Before fully reinstating rights, the court may temporarily place the child with the parent to see how it goes.

Termination of parental rights by state

Laws about termination of parental rights vary by state, especially when it comes to who can lose parental rights. A few interesting examples are:

  • In California and Montana, an American Indian parent cannot lose their rights unless a qualified expert testifies that there's a high risk the child will be physically or emotionally harmed.
  • In three states and Puerto Rico, parental rights cannot be terminated because of legitimate religious practice.
  • In four states, parents who cannot care for their child due to poverty can't lose rights solely based on that.

Termination of parental rights and child support

A parent cannot give up their rights simply because they don't want to pay child support. Parents who are considering this should instead try to get a child support order modification.

When a parent loses parental rights, they're no longer responsible for paying child support. This might even include child support payments they owe.

The tools you need to prove your parental fitness

To prove to the court that you're fit to parent, you'll need solid evidence.

The Custody X Change online app can help you:

Custody X Change has the tools you need to show the court you have your child's best interest in mind.

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