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Tennessee Appellate Court Restores Mother’s Parental Rights

Parental Rights

The termination of parental rights is one of the most serious decisions a family court can make. Under Tennessee law, a parent has a fundamental right to the care, custody, and control of his or her child. Therefore, the Court may interfere with parental rights only if there is found to be a compelling interest. A person seeking to terminate parental rights must prove both the existence of one of the statutory grounds for termination and that termination is in the child’s best interest.

Because of the fundamental nature of a parent’s rights to the custody of his or her child and the profound consequences of the termination of those rights, Tennessee law requires a higher standard of proof in termination cases. That is, grounds for termination of parental rights can only be established by clear and convincing evidence which establishes that the truth of the facts asserted is highly probable and eliminates any serious or substantial doubt about the correctness of the conclusions drawn from the evidence.

In RE Mackenzie N. Et Al is a case where a Tennessee trial court terminated the parental rights of a Mother finding she abandoned her children by willfully failing to support or visit them for four consecutive months proceeding the termination petition filed with the Court.

Tennessee Code Annotated 36-1-102(1)(A)(i) defines “abandonment” as follows:

For a period of four (4) consecutive months immediately preceding the filing of a proceeding or pleading to terminate the parental rights of the parent(s) or guardian(s) of the child who is the subject of the petition for termination of parental rights or adoption, that the parent(s) or guardian(s) either have willfully failed to visit or have willfully failed to support or have willfully failed to make reasonable payments toward the support of the child.

The facts of the Mackenzie case are the Grandmother, a Tennessee resident, went to visit her grandchildren in California where they were living after the death of their biological father. During the visit, Grandmother became concerned with what she deemed very poor living conditions due to Mother not working. In the Orange County Superior Court, Grandmother filed a petition to be appointed guardian of the children, for which she was granted and thusly took up residence with the children in California. Grandmother subsequently discontinued allowing Mother visitation due to what Grandmother deemed aggressive behavior by yelling and swearing from Mother. Mother filed a petition for visitation but California court dismissed it due to Mother’s failure to appear at a previous hearing. Mother was offered monitored/supervised visitation but she asserted she couldn’t afford to pay the monitor (i.e. the supervision). Grandmother then sought and received permission from the California court to return to Tennessee with the children. After returning to Tennessee, Grandmother filed a petition in Tennessee Chancery Court asking to be appointed guardian of the children which was granted.

Due to her financial hardship, the Mother did not visit her children living in Tennessee but weekly phone conversations with her children were arranged with Grandmother. However, Grandmother informed Mother to stop calling as she was claiming it was upsetting the children. Grandmother then filed a Petition for Adoption of a Related Child and Termination of Parental Rights on the grounds of abandonment. Mother did not dispute that she had not paid child support in the four months because she said she had been unable to do so because of her financial situation. Mother testified that, although she had not seen or spoken to her children in the four months preceding the filing of the petition, this was a direct result of Grandmother’s insistence that she have no contact with her children. The trial court ruled to terminate Mother’s parental rights, finding that she had abandoned her children by willfully failing to support or visit them in the four months preceding the filing of the petition for termination.

Mother appealed the termination of her parental rights on the grounds of abandonment, contending that any failure to support or visit her children was not willful. Mother argued that her failure to support her children was a result of poverty and that her failure to visit was caused by obstruction on the part of the children’s Grandmother. The Appellate Court ruled that the children’s Grandmother failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence the existence of at least one of the statutory grounds for termination and therefore reversed the termination of Mother’s parental rights.

If you are being threatened with the termination of your parental rights it’s in your best interest to seek the services of an experienced family law attorney. Contact attorney Jim Widrig or any of the attorneys at Widrig Law PLLC to schedule a consultation. Our phone number is 615-417-7800.

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