Being a parent is hard work. No one ever said it would be easy. Raising kids is also one of the most rewarding, fulfilling things many of us will ever do. But it isn’t for everyone. Some people take to parenthood like ducks to water. Others have to be dragged kicking and screaming. For those who have zero interest, just can’t figure it out, or are incapable for some reason, is it possible to terminate parental rights in California?
The short answer is: yes, it’s possible to terminate parental rights in California, with caveats. This can be accomplished either voluntarily or involuntarily. In both scenarios, it requires a court order. And as is usually the case in legal matters, it’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds. A case must meet specific criteria.
Voluntarily Terminate Parental Rights
Many reasons exist why people may want to terminate parental rights. Often issues with mental illness, addiction, or abuse play a role in these situations. The custodial parent may make it clear that the other is no longer welcome in a child’s life. If they’re old enough, a child may even be able to communicate that one parent is no longer welcome.
That said, in general, once you bring a child into this world, you’re responsible for them. A parent can’t just throw up their hands and walk away in an attempt to get out of paying child support. The court can deny a parent visitation, especially if there’s potential danger involved. Still, the non-custodial parent will be on the hook for maintenance payments and the like.
The one situation where one can voluntarily terminate parental rights is in the case of adoption. At a basic level, in order for a parent to waive their rights, there must be someone else ready and waiting to take them over.
Stepparent adoption is the most common situation. After divorce or the end of a relationship, if a spouse remarries, the new partner can legally adopt the child. It’s also possible to sign away parental rights to allow an agency or third-party adoption. In the latter instance, both birth parents must relinquish their rights.
However it goes down, once adoption is finalized, the old parent cedes obligations and rights to the new. If this is you, you no longer have to deal with custody, child support, visitation, or other responsibilities. On the other hand, you no longer have any right to be a part of the child’s life down the road. That’s a huge choice, one worth serious consideration.
Involuntarily Terminate Parental Rights
While it is theoretically possible to terminate parental rights on your own, it’s vastly more common for the court to handle these matters. Neither parent can sign away their obligations as parents, but the state can step in and cut them off. The court may intervene if it deems that one parent is unfit or poses a threat to the child.
The most common reason for this is abandonment. Under the California Family Code, the court can terminate parental rights if the non-custodial parent abandons the child. Three factors go into deciding whether or not this is the case:
- That parent provides no financial support;
- That parent has no—or at least a minimal—amount of contact with the child for a year or more; and
- The intent was to abandon the child.
If you are the custodial parent and your situation meets these criteria, you can bring a case against your ex to terminate parental rights. A grandparent or stepparent can also initiate these proceedings. So can an adult sibling of the child in question, a stepparent, or another adult who has assumed care of the child while the biological parents are absent.
Juvenile Dependency Court
If one or both parents struggles with substance abuse, are abusive, are involved with criminal activity, or otherwise unfit, the Juvenile Court may step in and terminate parental rights. The court can award one parent sole custody. However, if both parents get cut off, the child becomes the legal ward of the state and can be adopted without consent from the parents.
Adoption is the only way to voluntarily terminate parental rights. Even then, if a child may lose financial support, the court may not allow that move. It is, however, possible to effectively remove yourself from a child’s life if that’s a decision you want to make. Instead of trying to terminate parental rights, you can simply take a step back.
Though you’ll remain financially responsible, a person can forego any practical involvement in a child’s life. This can provide space to deal with mental health issue, cope with substance abuse, or work through any other problems. Depending on the circumstances, this may be what is truly best for a child. At least at the time.
This approach also leaves the door open for a future relationship once you vanquish whatever demons you face. Then again, maybe not. Maybe the scars run too deep or you irreparably damaged the relationship. But the possibility or reconciliation remains as ties aren’t legally severed. People change and grow and evolve. Whatever the problems, you may be able to fix them eventually.
Whether or not to terminate parental rights is a big decision. It’s not one the courts enter into lightly. In most cases, even if the situation is far from perfect, the court views having both biological parents in a child’s life as in the child’s best interest. In order to either surrender your claim as a parent or have the court cancel the other parent’s privileges, the situation must be fairly serious.