It is a basic legal tenet that parents have the right to the care and companionship of their children. The term “parental rights” generally refers to a parent’s right to make decisions regarding the care and well-being of their child, including such important matters as healthcare and education.

In cases where parents are living separately (such as in cases of separation or divorce), parental rights may also include such matters as visitation and custody. Part of parental rights includes making decisions and acting in the best interests of the child.

Who is Considered a Parent?

This seems like an easy question, but can become more complicated depending on the circumstances. Both biological and adoptive parents are considered legal parents, and thus have parental rights. That part’s easy.

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members, however, generally do not have parental rights. However, if they have legally adopted the child, or have been appointed legal guardian by the court, they may have parental rights. Legal guardians often have rights and responsibilities similar to parental rights, although they aren’t considered parents.

Do Step-Parents Have Parental Rights?

This also seems like an easy question at first, but the answer really depends on the circumstances of the family situation and on the state where you live. It is likely that a step-parent has parental rights — IF they legally adopted the child.

The rules regarding step-parents’ rights depend on what state you live in — some states may have rules that grant step-parents specific rights (such as visitation) even if they have not formally adopted the child. If you find yourself in this situation, you may want to talk to an attorney in your area who is familiar with your state’s rules regarding step-parents’ parental rights.

What Happens to My Parental Rights if the Other Parent has Custody?

Just because one parent has been granted custody does not necessarily mean that the other parent’s parental rights are terminated. Usually the non-custodial parent still has rights to the care and companionship of their child, including:

Can Parental Rights End?

Yes, termination of parental rights is possible. There are a couple of ways this can happen.

If the welfare of a child is at risk, the court may elect to terminate parental rights. Depending on the state you live in, there are certain procedures that the court must follow before making the decision to terminate. However, the deciding factors will always center around providing a safe home environment and the best interests of the child.

A parent may also choose to terminate their parental rights. Cases like this may be difficult, however, because the courts tend to want children to have two parents for emotional and financial support. Giving up your parental rights to avoid dealing with a child’s behavioral problems or to avoid paying child support will more than likely be frowned upon by the court.

If someone else wants to adopt the child, or if a petition has already been filed to terminate parental rights (often by another family member or by a government organization like Child Protective Services), you may voluntarily give up your rights. You may need to attend a court hearing to tell the court your desire to terminate your rights in these circumstances.

Termination of parental rights means that your legal rights to the child are taken away, and you are not the child’s legal parent anymore. The parent-child relationship no longer exists. While there is no longer any obligation to pay child support, this also means that there are no visitation rights, and the child can be adopted without the parent’s permission. Because of the importance of the parent-child relationship, the decision to terminate parental rights is taken very seriously by the courts.

Why Would the Court Terminate Parental Rights?

There are several different reasons a court may terminate parental rights. Usually, this comes up in cases of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Depending on where you live, the court may have certain elements that must be considered before issuing a decision. Some reasons courts may terminate parental rights include

  • Abandonment: Usually, if a parent has not attempted to contact their child or provide any financial support for an extended period of time without a good reason (usually six months or longer), courts will consider terminating parental rights. This behavior may be considered evidence that the parent has no interest in the parent-child relationship, and the parent intends to give up all rights to that relationship.
  • Neglect: If the parent has failed to properly care for the child’s needs — including food, shelter, medical care, education, or other special care that the child needs, it could lead to a termination of rights.
  • Unfit Parent: Parental fitness is a serious thing to consider. Generally, a parent may be deemed unfit if they cannot or will not provide the child with proper care, guidance, and support. This may involve cases of neglect, abandonment, abuse, or a combination of those factors.
  • Risk of Harm or Injury: If there is a serious risk of physical, emotional, or mental injury if the child is returned to the parent, or if the child would be in serious danger with the parent, the court may consider terminating parental rights.
  • Failure to Adjust: In cases where Child Protective Services (CPS) is involved with a family and the child has been removed from the home, the parent has to correct the issues that caused CPS to become involved with the family.
    • Usually, the parent has a particular time frame in which to correct the issues — and if the issues are not corrected within a “reasonable time,” then the state can petition to terminate their parental rights.
  • Sexual Assault: If the child was conceived as a result of sexual assault or rape, and the parent was convicted for the sexual assault, their parental rights can be terminated.

Should I Talk to a Lawyer if I Have Legal Issues Involving Parental Rights?

Family law issues can become complicated quickly, and there can be many layers and nuances depending on the circumstances of each case. Each state has its own specific set of rules, and it is in your best interests to talk to an experienced child custody lawyer before you make permanent decisions regarding your parental rights.

Your attorney can help talk you through the situation you’re facing, give you advice on the best way to proceed, and even represent you in court if it comes to that. Your attorney can also help you deal with the highly emotional issues that often come up in family cases, and help you achieve the best possible outcome for both you and your family.