Family Law

Termination of Parental Rights

By Lina Guillen, Attorney
When and how will courts terminate parental rights?

Parental Rights and Responsibilities

The laws underlying parental rights are well-established and provide parents with:

  • the legal right to make decisions regarding their child’s health and general welfare
  • the right to have physical custody or visitation with their child, and
  • the responsibility to provide financial support for the child

Courts have great respect for the parent-child bond and try to keep parents and children together, whenever possible. A termination of legal and custodial parental rights is reserved for extreme circumstances because it results in the following drastic results:

  • permanently ends the parent-child relationship
  • cuts off all rights to inheritance
  • cuts off all rights to custody and visitation, including the right to talk to the child
  • the parent will be removed from the child’s birth certificate
  • the parent no longer has to pay child support
  • the child may be placed for adoption without that parent’s permission

Process for Terminating Parental Rights


A parent can voluntarily agree to give up parental rights, which can be accomplished through a legally binding agreement, which would then be presented in court at a termination hearing. A court must still issue an official order to severe the parental ties to the child, but if a judge sees that the parent had agreed to give up all rights, the court will consider this in favor of terminating parental rights.

Petition to terminate rights and notice of hearing

If a parent refuses to give up rights, then a court will have to decide. The specific court process to terminate rights will vary from state to state, but generally, the petitioner—the person asking that a parent’s rights be terminated—will file a petition or written request with a court.

The court will set a termination hearing or trial date where both the petitioner and the parent whose rights may be terminated (respondent parent) will appear in court and present their cases.

The petitioner must give the respondent parent proper notice of the request. Notice procedures vary from state to state, but typically, the petitioner must make sure the petition is hand delivered to the respondent and must file proof of service with the court.

Termination hearing

At the hearing, both sides will appear ready to present evidence and testify in support of their positions. The respondent parent will have a chance to tell the judge why his or her rights should not be taken away. The petitioner will need to submit evidence which supports termination.

Both sides may submit documentary evidence, witness testimony, and expert reports, if any, relating to the grounds for termination and what would be in the child’s best interests.

After the court has heard from everyone, a judge will decide whether or not the respondent parent’s rights should be permanently severed.

Grounds for Terminating Parental Rights

A judge may terminate both custodial and legal parental rights if the petitioner can prove that a parent is unfit, meaning unable or unwilling to provide for his or her child’s care and safety.

The grounds for involuntary termination of parental rights vary from state to state, but the most common grounds are:

  • the parent abandoned the child (failed to support or maintain contact with the child)
  • severe or chronic abuse or neglect of the child
  • sexual abuse
  • severe or chronic abuse of other children in the household
  • long-term mental illness or deficiency of the parent
  • long-term drug or alcohol-induced incapacity of the parent
  • the parent was convicted of murdering the child’s other parent
  • the parent surrendered the child or agreed in writing to terminate parental rights

Termination of Rights and Adoption

The other circumstance under which a termination of parental rights may come up is through the adoption process. For example, if a child is being adopted out of foster care or because a stepparent wants to adopt his or her spouse’s child from a previous relationship, notice must be sent to the biological parent(s) along with a request for consent to terminate parental rights. In these cases, the biological parent can either agree in writing to give up rights or object.

If the biological parent objects, then the court will hold a termination of parental rights hearing, to determine whether the parent’s rights should be permanently severed and whether the adoption should be approved. The court will consider the same grounds for termination discussed above.

These issues can be quite complex and difficult to handle on your own due to the legal complexity and emotionally-charged nature of the proceedings. It’s best to consult with an experienced family law or adoption attorney in your area if you are facing a termination hearing.

Questions for My Attorney

How can I prove that I’ve been a fit parent and that my rights should not be terminated?

My ex has prevented me from seeing my child, but now claims I abandoned her. How can I prove this to a court?

My child’s other parent has agreed to surrender parental rights. What sort of document does he need to sign?

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