"Parental rights" refers the rights of parents to make decisions concerning their children. Generally, a parent has the right to determine their child’s care and custody, to educate and discipline their child, and to control their child’s earnings and property. “Termination of parental rights” is the legal term for severing these rights, privileges, and responsibilities regarding the child.

Parental rights are terminated on an individual basis, meaning that one birth parent can have his or her parental rights terminated while the other parent’s rights remain unaffected. Termination of both parents’ parental rights frees the child for adoption. There are two ways to terminate parental rights: voluntary termination and involuntary termination. 

Voluntary Termination of Parental Rights

One or both birth parents may agree to voluntarily relinquish their parental rights. Courts look at the following factors to determine if voluntary termination of parental rights should be granted: 

  • Whether the parent has been subject to undue influence, duress, or improper pressure from parents, friends, doctors, or acquaintances.
  • Whether the parent is under the influence of any drug, medicine, or substance that might affect his or her judgment.
  • The reason stated for why the parent is resigning his or her parental rights.
  • Whether termination of parents rights is in the best interests of the child.

Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights

An involuntary termination can occur when one birth parent seeks to legally sever the rights of the other birth parent. Involuntary termination can also occur without either parent’s consent when a state agency initiates legal proceedings to sever the rights of both parents and allow the child to be adopted. The parent or agency seeking involuntary termination typically must show:  

  • Abandonment of or failure to plan for the child
  • Failure to support the child
  • Child abuse
  • The birth parent is in jail
  • In the case of newborn placements, failure to  contest termination of parental rights

What Happens to the Child Once the Parent’s Rights Are Terminated?

If one parent’s rights have been terminated but the other parent’s rights are still recognized, the child will remain with the parent who maintains parental rights over the child. If both parents’ rights have been terminated, the State assumes legal custody and responsibility for the child until a new guardian can be found or the child can be adopted.

The State will first look to relatives of the child or people to whom the child might be emotionally attached. If a legal guardian cannot be found, the State will place the child in foster care until a family adopts the child or until the child becomes an adult, as defined by the State (age eighteen, graduating from high school, etc.).

Do I Need a Lawyer If My Parental Rights Are Being Terminated?

The procedure for termination of parental rights can be very confusing and varies from state to state. An experienced family lawyer can help you understand what your rights are as a parent and how they can be terminated. A family attorney can also represent you in court and file any necessary paperwork.