Recently, the Michigan Court of Appeals handed down a ruling clarifying that involuntary termination of parental rights for abuse or neglect does not absolve the parent whose rights were terminated from paying child support. The Michigan statute authorizing termination of parental rights for abuse and neglect, MCL 712A.19b, does not address the effects of termination of parental rights on child support obligations.
In issuing its ruling in IN Re: Beck, the appellate court noted that rights and responsibilities are legally distinct. The court said that if he Michigan Legislature had intended a rights termination to absolve a parent of parental responsibilities, it could have done so explicitly by stating so in statute, but it did not.
The father whose parental rights were terminated was not challenging the termination in the appeals case, merely the continuing obligation to pay child support.
The right to support is a right belonging to a child under Michigan law. Parents are jointly and severally liable to support their children under MCL 722.3(l). Previous court cases have established that parents cannot by agreement remove the child’s right to support from both parents. Absent legal adoption, natural parents remain liable to financially support their children throughout their children’s minority whether they choose to avail themselves of parental rights they may have.
In an earlier case, Evink v. Evink, the court ruled that a voluntary relinquishment of parental rights did not eliminate the child support obligation. The Beck court found no appreciable distinction between an involuntary termination of parental rights and a voluntary one in analyzing support obligations.
Where rights have been terminated involuntarily, as in Beck, public policy reasons justify requiring continued support payments, the court said. The court said extinguishing the support obligation on termination of parental rights might thwart the policy objectives of the termination. Parental rights terminations aim to protect children, removing them from harm’s reach and providing them permanency and stability. Were financial support withdrawn automatically on termination of parental rights, the goals of stability and permanence might be hampered.
Moreover, extinguishing the father’s support obligation in Beck would place an undue burden on the mother or the state to take on his share of the support obligation. The court noted that in some cases, a parent who fears financial insecurity because of the abusive or neglectful parent will no longer contribute financial support might cause the other parent to refrain from reporting abuse or neglect. The court also suggested that an irresponsible parent might engage in abuse or neglect for the specific purpose of avoiding his or her support obligation. Based on the above reasons, the Beck court decided that a parent’s child support obligations must continue after an involuntary termination of parental rights.