Parental rights and child support are separate legal matters. They may appear to be intertwined, and parents often attempt to withhold one in pursuit of the other, but in reality, paying child support (or not paying it) has no impact on parental rights.
Think of both of these matters from the perspective of the child (which is how the courts view the matter). A child has the right to receive reasonable support from his or her parents. If the child is not receiving financial support from a parent, he or she still has the right to visit and communicate with that parent. The logic behind this argument is that the child’s life should be better off with two loving parents, even if one parent struggles to financially support the child.
However, there are circumstances where it may be in the child’s best interests to cease visitation and communication with a parent. Failure to pay child support isn’t enough to warrant this type of severe action, but it may be a red flag for other issues that are harmful to a child, such as abandonment or neglect. When these issues arise, the court may take action to limit or terminate a parent’s rights to visitation, communication, and decision-making on behalf of the child.
Termination of Parental Rights
When the court terminates an adult’s parental rights, it severs the legal parent-child relationship. Neither the parent or the child retains the right to visit and communicate with each other, and the parent loses the right to make important decisions on behalf of the child (i.e. healthcare, schooling, religion). The parent who lost his or her parental rights is no longer obligated to pay child support, as the responsibility for providing reasonable support transitions to the new adoptive parent (or to the state if the child is a ward of the state).
The guidelines for termination of parental rights are set at the state-level. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands have statutes regarding the termination of parental rights in family court.
Voluntary Termination of Parental Rights
Termination of parental rights can be voluntary. That said, a parent can’t just give up their rights because they don’t want the associated obligations (namely child support). For a court to approve voluntary termination of a parent’s rights, there will usually need to be another adult who is willing to adopt the child and assume the associated obligations.
Grounds for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights
In Arizona, there are 13 situations that can serve as grounds to involuntarily terminate parental rights:
- Abuse or neglect of other children in the household
- Chronic or severe abuse or neglect
- Conviction of a felony where the prison sentence will deprive the child of a normal home for a period of years
- Failure to support or maintain contact with the child
- Involuntary termination of parental rights to another child
- Long-term chronic abuse of alcohol or drugs
- Long-term mental deficiency or mental illness
- Sexual abuse
- The identity of the parent is unknown, and remains unknown after three months of diligent efforts to identify and locate the parent
- The parents have already relinquished their rights to a child to a state agency, or have consented to an adoption
- The potential father was issued a notice of planned adoption, and he failed to file a paternity action within 30 days
- The putative father failed to file a notice of claim of paternity
Keep in mind that in any of these cases, these circumstances don’t automatically result in the termination of a parent’s rights and obligations. Rather, they serve as grounds to file a motion for termination of parental rights, and for the court to consider whether terminating the parent’s rights is in the child’s best interests.
Can the State Move to Terminate Both Parents’ Rights?
While any court would be reluctant to strip a child of both parents, there are circumstances where doing so may be in the child’s best interests. In Arizona, state law allows for this practice in limited circumstances where the child is living in an out-of-home placement (e.g. with a family member or foster family), the responsible agency has made diligent efforts to reunify the child with his or her parents, and one of the following situations applies:
- The child has been in placement for 9 months or longer, and the parent has substantially neglected or willfully refused to resolve the issues that necessitate the out-of-home placement
- The child is age 3 or younger, has been in placement for 6 months or longer, and the parent has substantially neglected or willfully refused to resolve the issues that necessitate the out-of-home placement, including refusal to participate in reunification services offered by the state agency
- The child has been in placement for 15 months or longer, the parent has proven unable to resolve the issues that necessitate the out-of-home placement, and the court can reasonably assume that the parent is incapable of exercising proper and effective parental care and control in the near future
Furthermore, all of the following must be true for the state to initiate involuntary termination of parental rights:
- The child was placed outside of the home due to a court order
- The responsible agency has made diligent efforts to provide appropriate reunification services
- The child was returned to the legal custody of his or her parent, but was subsequently removed from their custody within 18 months, and the parent is currently unable to discharge their parental responsibilities
Does Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights Also Terminate Child Support?
When a judge issues an involuntary termination order, the parent loses all parental rights and obligations to the child—including the obligation to pay child support. In fact, the termination order nullifies any existing child support order and custody order.
However, while the parent has no obligation to pay child support going forward, he or she will still be responsible for any child support arrears that accrued before the child support order was nullified. As such, the parent will continue to see their wages garnished and income tax returns offset until the child support arrears are paid, unless they reach a settlement agreement to clear the debt.
Call the Family Law Team at (480) 467-4348 to discuss your case today.
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