Termination of Parental Rights Reversed in Gallatin: In re William T.H.

Facts: Child was born when Mother and Father were teenagers in high school. Mother and Child lived with Mother’s parents after Child was born, and Father lived with his parents. They never sought the court’s assistance with setting child support or visitation.

Father was a regular presence in Child’s life for the first three years, with Child spending the night at his house on occasion.

In Child’s fourth year, Mother began dating Stepfather. Mother also began restricting Father’s access to Child around this time. When Father would ask for Child to stay at his home, Mother would refuse. When Father suggested establishing a parenting plan that would provide Father with regular visitation with Child, Mother refused to discuss it.

Eventually, the only way Father was able to see Child was at Child’s soccer games, about which Mother eventually refused to give Father any information.

Mother and Stepfather were married a few years later. One month later, they petitioned to terminate Father’s parental rights and have Stepfather adopt Child.

After a trial, the trial court terminated Father’s parental rights. Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Persons seeking to terminate another’s parental rights must prove two things by clear and convincing evidence. Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(c) requires that termination of parental rights must be based upon: (1) A finding by the court that the grounds for termination of parental rights have been established; and (2) that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interests of the child.

The best interests analysis is separate from and subsequent to the determination that there is clear and convincing evidence of grounds for termination. The existence of a ground does not inexorably lead to the conclusion that termination of a parent’s rights is in the best interest of the child. It is a separate analysis.

In conducting a best interest analysis, the focus is on what is best for the child, not what is best for either parent.

After reviewing the record, the Court reversed, finding:

No evidence was introduced that Father’s home is unsafe or detrimental to Child in any way, or that Father or his lifestyle presents any danger to Child. However, the test here is not which residential placement would be better for Child. As our Supreme Court has written, a father’s constitutional right to parent his child “may not be forfeited in a balancing test or to another man who may appear to be a more ideal father.”

This is not a comparison between living with Mother and Stepfather, on one hand, and living with Father, on the other. Instead, the question is whether Child’s best interests are served by termination of Father’s parental rights, thereby reducing Father to the role of a complete stranger and “severing forever all legal rights and obligations” of Father. We find no evidence that having Father involved in Child’s life, in addition to Stepfather, would be contrary to Child’s best interests….

Father acknowledges that Child is happy and thriving in Mother and Stepfather’s home. Father just wants the opportunity to spend time with his son and develop a relationship with him. We also recognize that Stepfather has provided Child with love, support, and a stable environment. We assume that will continue, whether Father is involved in Child’s life or not.

In reviewing the evidence introduced at trial, we find that Stepfather has failed to carry his burden of proving by clear and convincing evidence that terminating Father’s parental rights is in the best interest of Child.

Accordingly, the trial court was reversed, and Father’s parental rights were restored.

K.O.’s Comment: This case illustrates how the best interest analysis in a comparative fitness case between two parents is fundamentally different from the best interest analysis in a termination of parental rights case.

In re William T.H. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, February 18, 2014).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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