Parental rights are the set of legal rights granted to parents, which allow them to make important decisions on behalf of their child. Parental rights also refer to a parent’s right to take certain actions on behalf of their child. These rights reinforce the basic legal tenet that parents have the right to the care and companionship of their child. In general, parental rights include:
- The right to assume legal and physical custody of their child;
- The right to certain other rights related to visitation and contact with their child;
- The right to make fundamental decisions for their child such as the child’s education, religious beliefs, and medical treatments;
- The right to pass property on to their child through inheritance; and
- The right to enter into a contract on behalf of their minor child.
Parental rights are intended to ensure the wellbeing of the child. These rights are generally considered to automatically be granted to biological parents. However, they may also be extended to adoptive parents, foster parents, and legal guardians. Further, laws that define and specify parental rights and who may receive them vary widely from state to state.
The main reason why parental rights may be terminated is for the child’s safety and wellbeing. The courts place high importance on the relationship between parents and their children. Therefore, should they decide to terminate parental rights, it would be for a very serious reason.
Terminating parental rights is generally used to remove the child from an unhealthy or destructive environment, or as part of the adoption process. The court will always first consider the child’s best interests, which includes any time there is danger to a child’s physical, mental, moral, or emotional health.
The most common reasons why a court would terminate parental rights include:
- Child neglect, abuse, or deprivation;
- Untreated substance abuse on the part of the parent;
- Emotional illness, or mental illness or deficiency on the part of the parent;
- Child abandonment, an example being if the parent has not attempted to provide for their financial needs for an extended period of time, and they do not have a good reason for this;
- A crime has been committed against the other parent;
- Sexual assault; or
- Failure to adjust, such as the parent failing to correct any issues that previously caused the involvement of child protective services.
Parents themselves may willingly consent to terminating their parental rights. Doing so removes all of their legal rights to their child, and dissolves the parent-child relationship. Thus, the parent is not the child’s legal parent any longer. This relieves them of the legal responsibilities and duties to their child, such as the obligation to provide for the child’s basic needs. For example, there is no longer any obligation to pay child support, but there are also no longer any visitation rights. Further, the child may be adopted without the parent’s permission.
Cases in which a parent requests to terminate their parental rights are especially difficult. This is because courts tend to want children to have both parents in their lives, for emotional or financial support.
However, if the parent believes they are endangering the child, it might be best that they relinquish their parental rights. Importantly, giving up parental rights simply to avoid dealing with a child’s behavioral issues, or to avoid paying child support, will most likely be frowned upon by the court.
Parental rights may not be terminated for the following reasons:
- A parent has committed a crime and been incarcerated, but is now clean or has taken reformative action;
- Conflicts of religion, unless it endangers the child or ignores their best interests;
- The fact that a parent lives with a non-married member of the opposite sex; or
- The parent merely wishes to no longer be the child’s parent.
It is important to note that the parental rights of both fathers and mothers are supposed to be equal. However, fathers may have trouble asserting their parental rights, as it may be more difficult for them to establish that they are the legal parent of the child. Fathers must first prove that they are the child’s biological father. Then, once fatherhood has been established, the state cannot remove parental rights from the father, aside from any of the circumstances mentioned above.
Another unique circumstance is if the parents are not married. It is not necessarily easier to terminate parental rights if the parents are not married, as the biological parents have the same rights as married parents if they are one family unit with their child. However, if the mother is married to a man who is not the child’s biological father, the mother’s husband is legally presumed to be the father of the child.
Traditionally, cases involving unwed parents would often result in the termination of the biological father’s parental rights. More recently, the father’s rights movement has highlighted the potential damage done by denying a child access to their biological father.
If a person becomes a parent through adoption or marriage, they have the same parental rights and responsibilities as a biological parent. As such, non-biological parental rights may only be terminated due to one of the reasons discussed above. Regardless of how a person came to be the child’s parent, they have the same rights to the child as long as they are the child’s legal parent.
As previously mentioned, if parental rights are terminated, the parent no longer has an obligation to pay any future child support. However, if the parent owes any past or retroactive child support, the court may require the parent to pay off the past support. A parent cannot terminate their own parental rights to avoid supporting their child.
If you are facing having your parental rights terminated, or find yourself needing to terminate your own parental rights, it is in your best interest to consult with a child custody attorney. An experienced child custody attorney can inform you of your state’s laws, as well as assist you throughout the entire legal process as needed.