Facts: After what Mother described as a “fling thing” with Father, Mother gave birth to Child in March 2009. Father saw Child at the hospital when Child was born but never saw Child again.
In April 2011, Mother, in her sole name, filed a petition to terminate Father’s parental rights.
In June 2011, Mother married Stepfather.
In October 2012, the trial court entered an agreed order allowing Mother and Stepfather to file and proceed on and Amended Petition joining Stepfather as a party and seeking to have Stepfather adopt Child.
On March 4, 2013 — the day before trial — Mother and Stepfather’s Amended Petition was filed.
The trial court found Father willfully failed to provide child support or visit Child in the four months immediately preceding the filing of the original petition to terminate Father’s parental rights. The trial court also found Father willfully failed to make reasonable payments toward Mother’s support in the four months immediately preceding the birth of Child. Notably, the trial court found “the Amended Petition relates back to the filing of the original Petition pursuant to Rule 15 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure.”
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court on the applicable four-month period but affirmed that the outcome on other grounds.
A parent’s parental rights may be terminated only upon (1) a finding by the court by clear and convincing evidence that the grounds for termination of parental rights have been established; and (2) that termination of the parent’s rights is in the best interest of the child. Both of these elements must be established by clear and convincing evidence. Evidence satisfying the clear and convincing evidence standard 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.
Tennessee Code § 36-1-102(1)(A)(i) defines “abandonment” to mean for a period of four consecutive months immediately preceding the filing of a pleading to terminate the parental rights of a parent, that parent willfully failed to visit the child or willfully failed to support the child.
Tennessee Code § 36-1-113(b) says only “the prospective adoptive parent or parents, including extended family members caring for a related child, any licensed child-placing agency having custody of the child, the child’s guardian ad litem, or the [Department of Children’s Services]” have legal standing to file a petition to terminate a parent’s parental rights. Thus, Tennessee law does not grant one parent — standing alone — the authority to seek termination of the other parents rights.
After reviewing the record, the Court of Appeals reasoned:
In the present case, Mother clearly lacks standing to file a petition to terminate Father’s rights by herself. Therefore, the original termination petition she filed in April 2011 is null and void. As we see it, it follows that Tenn. R. Civ. P. 15.03 providing for the “relation back” of amendments to the filing of an original pleading is not applicable. Simply stated, there can be no “relation back” to a pleading — in this case, the original petition by Mother — that was a nullity from the start. Moreover, as Father correctly asserts, the Supreme Court has further observed that “[b]ecause the legislature specifically designated who may file a petition to terminate parental rights, a court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear such a petition unless the party filing the petition has standing.” Based on the foregoing, the original petition to terminate is a nullity — ineffectual for all purposes….
In our view, the [rule that the applicable four-month period is] the four months immediately preceding the filing of the petition currently before the court  applies not only in the context of a dismissed, earlier-filed petition to terminate, but more broadly to other situations involving the filing of multiple petitions to terminate against the same party. Here, we have already concluded that Mother’s original petition is null and void. In effect, the situation is the same as if the original petition was dismissed. Accordingly,  the applicable four-month period is the four months immediately preceding the filing of the Amended Petition. The trial court erred in concluding otherwise.
Because the proof showed Father paid child support in the four-month period prior to the filing of the Amended Petition, the trial court’s finding of abandonment for failure to support was reversed and vacated.
The Court went on to uphold the trial court’s findings regarding the other grounds upon which the termination of Father’s parental rights was based, i.e., failure to visit Child and failure to provide support in the four months prior to Child’s birth, and the trial court’s findings that termination was in Child’s best interest. Thus, the termination of Father’s parental rights was affirmed on other grounds.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.