An adult may voluntarily terminate or “sign away” their parental rights, but doing so rarely eliminates the requirement to pay child support. Generally speaking, the only situation where the courts will absolve a parent of their child support obligation is when another adult is willing to adopt the child.
This can occur when the custodial parent remarries (if the new spouse is willing to adopt the child), when a child is adopted by another family member (e.g. grandparents, extended family), or when a child is adopted from a foster home. Without a pending adoption, it’s rare to see a case where the court approves a request to absolve a parent’s child support obligation.
Additionally, note that when the court does grant a petition to absolve a parent of their child support obligation, the judgement may only apply to future child support payments. In other words, a parent who signs away their parental rights to a new adoptive parent may still be required to pay any unpaid child support.
Parental rights vs parental duties
It’s important to understand the difference between parental rights and parental duties. Parental rights generally relate to a parent’s access to their child and his or her affairs. Examples include the right to visitation, to consult with the other parent on important matters like education, and to consult with the child’s healthcare providers. Parental rights can also include a claim on a portion of the child’s income. These rights are typically spelled out in your divorce decree, court order, or applicable state statutes.
Parental duties, on the other hand, are considered natural obligations that come with parenthood and are inherently difficult to dismiss. Examples of parental duties include child support and the general obligation to provide for the physical wellbeing of a child. As these revolve around the child’s rights, parental duties and obligations can only be absolved when doing so is in the best interest of the child.
Remember—the court has an obligation to protect the best interests of the child and ensure that the child is sufficiently provided for. The needs of the child will always come before the needs of the parent. Therefore, while a parent may voluntarily terminate their right to visitation, the dismissal of parental rights doesn’t necessarily terminate parental duties.
Voluntary termination of parental rights
To sign away your parental rights, you’ll need to file a petition with the court for voluntary termination of parental rights. When the court considers your petition, the judge will take the following factors into account:
- Abandonment – for mothers, the court will consider any periods of abandonment since the child was born. For fathers, the court will consider abandonment since the child’s birth and during the mother’s pregnancy.
- Child’s best interests – while “best interests” can be a vague legal term, it generally refers to the child’s overall well-being. Specifically, it can include the child’s stability, education, safety, and basic needs.
- Child support payments – is the parent currently behind on child support payments? If the parent is currently caught up on payments, have there been any periods in the past when the parent missed child support payments?
- Child’s wishes – if the child is 13 or older, the court will strongly consider (and likely follow) the child’s preferences.
- Communication efforts – for non-custodial parents who have limited or no communication with the child, the court will consider whether that parent has made sufficient efforts to establish or improve communication with the child.
- Safety – has the non-custodial parent ever placed the child in danger?
Generally speaking, the courts like to avoid terminating parental rights, especially if there is any possibility for improved relations between the parent and child, or between the two parents.
It’s fair to say that most judges lean towards being optimistic in this matter, and therefore only consider termination of parental rights as an extreme, last-resort measure. The only exceptions would be when the child’s life is clearly in danger, or if the non-custodial parent is voluntarily signing over parental rights to an adoptive parent.
Note that in some cases, the court may attempt to improve the situation before granting termination of parental rights. If the petition for voluntary termination is primarily due to child support, the judge may consider lowering the child support payments. If there is no relationship between the parent and the child, the court may impose supervised visitations or require the parent to complete parenting classes.
Involuntary termination of parental rights
Every state has its own statutes regarding the termination of parental rights. In Arizona, ARS 8-533 provides the following as grounds to terminate the parent-child relationship:
- The parent has abandoned the child
- The parent has neglected or willfully abused a child (any child, not just the child in question)
- The parent is unable to discharge their parental responsibilities due to a mental deficiency, mental illness, or a history of chronic substance abuse, and there is reason to believe that the condition will continue for a prolonged period of time
- The parent has been convicted of a felony that proves that he or she is unfit to be a parent, such as an act of violence against the child’s other parent or another family member
- The parent has been convicted of a felony and issued a sentence of such length that the child will be deprived of a normal home for a period of years
- The potential father failed to file a paternity action within 30 days of completion of service as prescribed in ARS 8-106(G)
- The putative father failed to file a notice of claim of paternity
- The parents have relinquished their rights to a child to an agency, or have consented to the adoption
- The identity of the parent is unknown and continues to be unknown following three months of diligent efforts to find and identify the parent
- The parent has had their parental rights to another child terminated in the last two years for the same reason, and he or she is currently unable to discharge their parental responsibilities due to the same reason
Additionally, the following may serve as sufficient grounds for an Arizona court to terminate an adult’s parental rights:
- The child is currently in the care of an out-of-home placement, the agency responsible for the child’s care has made reasonable efforts to reunify the parent and child, and one of the following circumstances exists:
- The child has been in this position for at least 9 months and the parent has substantially neglected or willfully refused to remedy the circumstances that are causing the child to remain in an out-of-home placement (the time requirement is dropped to 6 months for children who are under age 3)
- The child has been in this position for at least 15 months, the parent has been unable to remedy the circumstances that are causing the child to remain in an out-of-home placement, and it’s substantially likely that the parent won’t be capable of exercising proper and effective parental care and control in the near future
- The court ordered the child be transferred to an out-of-home placement, the child was returned to the legal custody of the parent, the child was subsequently removed from the parent’s legal custody again within 18 months, and the parent is currently unable to discharge their parental responsibilities
Call the Family Law Team at (480) 467-4348 to discuss your case today.