Facts: Child was born to Mother and Father. They separated, and Father did not maintain a relationship with Child. Mother married Stepfather, and they had a child, Titus. Mother and Stepfather allowed Child to believe that he was Child’s father. Mother and Stepfather petitioned to terminate Father’s parental rights, sought to have Stepfather adopt Child, and change Child’s last name. Father’s parental rights were terminated, but Stepfather never proceeded with the adoption. Instead, Stepfather and Mother separated. Stepfather sought custody of Titus but refused any involvement with or responsibility for Child, who he once sought to adopt. Stepfather even refused to visit with Child and, during his last visit, told Child was not the Child’s father. Mother argued that Stepfather should be required to pay child support for both children. Stepfather asserted that he should not be required to pay child support for Child because he was neither the biological nor adoptive father of Child. The trial court ruled:
Because [Stepfather assisted] in causing [Father’s] parental rights to be terminated and held himself out as the father, he is more than a stepfather. He has assumed the position as a father, having caused that vacancy. The law does not favor causing a bastardy situation. And, the law is clear that the best interest of a child is paramount in divorce and parenting litigation. To rule otherwise would be a disservice to [C]hild.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Stepfather argued he should not be required to submit child support for Child when he is not the biological or adoptive father of Child. Mother contended the trial court did not err in ordering Stepfather to submit child support because, as a result of Stepfather’s actions, Child is no longer entitled to continued support from his natural father. Mother alternatively responded that if the Court reversed the trial court’s child support order, then Stepfather should be required to pay alimony to offset Child’s loss of support.
Tennessee does not provide for the imposition of a child support obligation upon an individual unless that person has a duty to support his or her natural or adopted child. In a divorce proceeding, the trial court may impose an obligation of child support upon the natural parents or those who stand in the place of the natural parents by adoption. In the absence of a formal adoption, a man is not obligated to provide support for a child when it is shown by clear and convincing evidence that he is not the natural parent of the child. When one’s parental rights are terminate, it also terminates the responsibilities of that parent for future child support or other future financial responsibilities even if the child is not ultimately adopted.
Regarding Stepfather’s child support obligation, the Court concluded:
We are sympathetic to the Child’s plight, and we acknowledge that the best interest of the child is always paramount in a divorce proceeding. However, the legislature has made it clear that this court may only impose a child support obligation on a child’s natural or adoptive parent. Additionally, the legislature has provided a very specific framework regarding the adoption of children and the subsequent establishment of the parental relationship. Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court erred in imposing a statutory obligation upon Stepfather to submit child support for the care and maintenance of the Child when he was neither the biological nor adoptive parent of the Child. In so concluding, we must express our regret in reaching this decision. We cannot imagine a more sympathetic exception to the statutory rule regarding the imposition of child support. While we disapprove of the heartless manner in which Stepfather informed the Child that he was not the Child’s father and of his refusal to support a child that he once sought to adopt, this court cannot condone the imposition of a legal obligation to submit child support when such an obligation does not exist.
The Court then rejected Mother’s alternative argument for alimony, noting that because she did not request alimony at trial, the issue was waived. The Court then added:
While we refuse to replace the child support obligation that cannot be statutorily imposed with a spousal support obligation, an upward deviation of Stepfather’s child support obligation relating to Titus might be warranted in light of the Parties’ changed circumstances as a result of this opinion. We remand this case to the trial court with direction to complete a new child support worksheet and consider whether an upward deviation from the child support guidelines is appropriate in setting Stepfather’s remaining child support obligation.
Judge Susano issued a concurring opinion emphasizing that “[d]eviations in the amount of child support must be viewed in the context of the child for whom an obligor parent is responsible — in this case, Titus.” He then quoted the following provision in the Child Support Guidelines:
In making its determination regarding a request for deviation pursuant to this chapter, the tribunal shall consider all available income of the parents as defined by this chapter and shall make a written finding that an amount of child support other than the amount calculated under the Guidelines is reasonably necessary to provide for the needs of the minor child or children for whom support is being determined in the case immediately under consideration.
The trial court was reversed.
K.O.’s Comment: I am curious as to why the termination of parental rights and and adoption did not happen at the same time. The usual (and best) practice is to join the actions so they can be concluded at the same time. That would have prevented an outcome like this.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.