In a family law context, parental rights refer to a parent’s rights to make important decisions and take certain actions on behalf of their child or children. Such rights are generally considered to apply automatically to biological parents, as well as adoptive parents, foster parents, and in some cases, legal guardians

Parental rights typically include the right to:

  • Assume legal and physical custody of a child or children; 
  • Possess certain rights concerning visitation and contact with a child or children;
  • Make decisions regarding fundamental matters for a child or children, such as
    •    Education;
    •  Religion; and 
    •   Medical treatments. 
  • Pass property to a child or children through inheritance; and
  • Enter into a contract on behalf of a minor child or children.

Essentially, parental rights are meant to protect and ensure the wellbeing of a child. Laws that define parental rights vary widely from state to state. Regardless, all courts interpret parental rights using the child’s best interest standard.

Do Non-Biological Parents Have Different Parental Rights Than Biological Parents?

A non-biological parent is a parent who is not biologically related to the child. A non-biological parent can still achieve legal parental status by legally adopting the child. Adoption allows a non-biological parent to gain full legal and physical custody of the child.  

Aside from having child custodial rights, non-biological parents generally hold the same rights as biological parents, so long as they are legally recognized as the child’s parents. 

In some instances, the non-biological parent may even obtain more parental rights than the biological parent. This can happen for instance when the biological parent is unable to fulfill their parental duties due to reasons, such as neglect, incapacity, or incarceration. 

If One Parent Transfers Custody to the Other Parent, What Parental Rights Do They Still Have?

When one parent transfers custody to the other parent, it does not necessarily mean that the parent transferring custody loses all of their rights. They may still retain some of their parental rights, especially if physical custody is being split between both parties. This custody arrangement is commonly found in situations where the parents are divorced

Any rights that the transferring parent retains are called, “residual parental rights,” which can include: 

  • The right to visit the child or children (known as, “visitation rights”);
  • The right to consent to adoption of the child or children;
  • The right to decide on the child or children’s religious activities; and 
  • The right to support (or request support) for the child or children. 

It is crucial for parents to be able to clearly define not only their traditional parental rights, but also any residual parental rights that might exist. As mentioned above, residual parental rights usually result from instances of divorce or legal separation

Thus, not knowing what parental rights you have can lead to lengthy legal disputes and in some cases, partial loss or complete termination of those rights. A child custody lawyer can help you to determine what rights you have as a parent.  

What Happens If My Parental Rights are Completely Terminated?

Parental rights can be terminated in several ways. Most often, parental rights are terminated by either a court order, or when a parent voluntarily elects to terminate their rights.

When one parent’s rights are terminated, the other parent gains control of all parental rights. If for some reason both parents lose their parental rights, then the state gets full legal and physical custody of the child. 

A parent’s whose rights have been terminated means that they are no longer considered a legal parent of the child, and they must forfeit any legal rights or privileges they have over the child.

In other words, that parent loses all of their parental rights, e.g., no visitation, no custody, and no right to make the child’s educational or medical decisions.

What Happens If My Parental Rights are Partially Terminated?

As previously discussed, parental rights can either be completely terminated, or only partially terminated. Partial terminations most likely result in both parents retaining rights. Again, partial terminations are frequently caused by a divorce or legal separation. 

There are several possible outcomes for a parent with partially terminated rights. One is that a court may allow the parent to have physical custody of the child (e.g., visitation rights), but take away that parent’s right to make important decisions for the child (e.g., medical treatments). 

Alternatively, a court may allow the parent to make important decisions for the child, but deny the parent the right to have physical custody. This sometimes happens when a court finds that it is in the child’s best interest to be placed with the other parent for various reasons.

Additionally, the parents can create their own agreement that allocates different combinations of these rights to each other, to ensure the child’s best interests are met. A court, however, still must review the agreement and issue a final order. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for Parental Right Issues?

As a parent, it is important to understand the rights you have to raise your child. If you have any questions or concerns regarding your parental rights, you should contact a child custody lawyer in your area for assistance. 

A local lawyer can help to clarify what types of parental rights you may have that are specific to the laws in your area. In the event that a lawsuit or other family law dispute arises, a lawyer can also represent you in court and provide you with legal support that protects your best interests.