Termination of Parental Rights

How and when are parental rights terminated?

Termination of parental rights and adoption are governed by statute in Tennessee. Termination of parental rights must be based upon: 1) a finding by the Court by clear and convincing evidence that grounds for termination of parental rights have been established and 2) a finding that the termination of the parent’s rights is also in the child’s best interest.

There are a number of statutory grounds for termination of parental rights recognized in Tennessee. The two most common statutory grounds are a parent’s willful failure to support a child or willful failure to visit a child for the four months preceding the filing of a petition to terminate parental rights. A willful failure to support is defined as a willful failure, for a period of four consecutive months, to provide monetary support for a child or more than token payments toward the support of a child. “Token support” means that the support, under the circumstances of the case, is insignificant given the parent’s financial means. A willful failure to visit is defined as a willful failure, for a period of four consecutive months, to visit or engage in more than token visitation with a child. “Token visitation” means that the visitation, under the circumstances, is of such an infrequent nature or short duration so as constitute minimal or insubstantial contact with the child. A parent cannot “cure” his or her willful failure to support or willful failure to visit after the filing of a petition to terminate parental rights.

In general, parents cannot “surrender” their parental rights voluntarily in order to avoid a child support obligation. However, in certain circumstances, the court will accept a voluntary surrender from one or both parents to a child, particularly in situations where there are prospective adoptive parents or a prospective adoptive step-parent.

Because the right to parent is constitutionally protected, and any interference with that right – including the termination of that right – is an interference with one’s parental rights, the burden of proof in a termination case is higher than in other civil cases and the petitioning party must show by clear and convincing evidence that statutory grounds exist and that the termination is also in the child’s best interest.

The Juvenile Court, Chancery Court and Circuit Court in Shelby County all have jurisdiction to hear and decide termination actions. Depending upon the facts of your case, the economic circumstances of all interested parties, and whether or not the termination petition is accompanied by a petition for adoption, there may be advantages to filing in one court as opposed to the other two. You should discuss this choice of forum with your attorney.

Parental Rights Statute

The Tennessee Statutes governing termination of parental rights and adoption are located in Title 36, Chapter 1, of Tennessee Code Annotated.