No Standing to Terminate Parental Rights in McMinnville, TN: In re Lyric A.

Tennessee termination of parental rightsFacts: Father and Mother are the parents of Child. When they divorced in 2009, Father was designated the primary residential parent. Mother abused drugs and was incarcerated much of the time. Child primarily lived with Father and Father’s mother (“Grandmother”).

Six years after the divorce, Father and Grandmother jointly petitioned to terminate Mother’s parental rights and allow Grandmother to adopt Child without terminating Father’s parental rights.

After a trial, the trial court terminated Mother’s parental rights and granted Grandmother’s petition to adopt without terminating Father’s parental rights.

Mother appealed.

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

“Standing” concerns whether a party has a legally protectable interest in litigation.

In the case of parental termination, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(b)(1) confers standing on “[t]he 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] . . .”

The statute only allows one parent to petition for termination of the other parent’s rights when the other parent had been found guilty of severe child sexual abuse in criminal court.

The Court held that Father and Grandmother lacked standing to terminate Mother’s parental rights:

[Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(b)(1)] is clear and unambiguous. It does not permit one parent to petition for the termination of the other parent’s rights, except in one specific circumstance found in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-113(g)(11), which confers standing on one parent if the other parent has been found guilty of “severe child sexual abuse under any prior order of a criminal court.”

Furthermore, but for one exception, the statutory scheme unambiguously states that the rights of both parents must be terminated before a third party becomes eligible to adopt the child. Specifically, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-1-117(a) states in pertinent part:

[T]he legal parents . . . must be made parties to the adoption proceeding or to a separate proceeding seeking the termination of those rights, and their rights to the child must be terminated by a court to authorize the court to order the adoption of the child or adult by other persons.

The only exception [is for a] stepparent [adoption]. . . . Grandmother is not a stepparent; thus, this exception is also not applicable.

Thus, the trial court’s judgment terminating Mother’s parental rights was reversed for lack of standing.

K.O.’s Comment: This case is factually similar to In re Ava B. In that case, the Court also held that a father and grandmother did not have standing under the adoption statutes to file a petition to terminate a mother’s parental rights without also terminating the father’s parental rights.

In re Lyric A. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, October 12, 2017).

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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.

One thought on “No Standing to Terminate Parental Rights in McMinnville, TN: In re Lyric A.

  1. Looking at the statutory language, the trial court additionally lacked subject matter jurisdiction to hear the case because the criteria for the statutorily defined ground of abandonment, in this situation, was not met and would not be permitted in Title 36, chapter 1, part 1. Both parent’s parental rights were statutorily required to be terminated before a court could order the adoption of the child. If both parent’s parental rights were not terminated, the child could not be made available for adoption and would not meet the statutorily defined definition of abandonment in 36-1-102, as shown below:

    36-1-113(a) states in pertinent part: The chancery and circuit courts shall have concurrent jurisdiction with the juvenile court to terminate parental… rights to a child… as a part of the adoption proceeding “by utilizing any grounds for termination of parental or guardianship rights permitted in this part or in title 37, chapter 1, part 1 and title 37, chapter 2, part 4.”

    36-1-113(c) Termination of parental or guardianship rights must be based upon:
    (1) A finding by the court by clear and convincing evidence that the grounds for termination of parental or guardianship rights have been established;

    The trial court terminated mother’s parental rights on the ground of abandonment, 36-1-113(g)(1), which states: Abandonment by the parent or guardian, “as defined in § 36-1-102”, has occurred;

    36-1-102(1)(A) For purposes of terminating the parental or guardian rights of parent(s) or guardian(s) of a child to that child “in order to make that child available for adoption”, “abandonment” means

    36-1-102(1)(G) “Abandonment” and “abandonment of an infant” “do not have any other definition except that which is set forth in this section, it being the intent of the general assembly to establish the only grounds for abandonment by statutory definition.”

    36-1-117(a) …the biological mother, and the established father or putative father of the child “must be made parties to the adoption proceeding” or to a separate proceeding seeking the termination of those rights, and their rights to the child must be terminated by a court “to authorize the court to order the adoption of the child or adult by other persons”

    36-1-102(4) “Adoption” means the social and legal process of establishing by court order, other than by paternity or legitimation proceedings or by voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the legal relationship of parent and child;

    In Re Z.J.S. and M.J.P., M2002-02235-COA-R3-JV, 2003 WL 21266854 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 3, 2003),
    “Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-117(a)(1) (2001) requires that both biological parents be made
    parties to a termination proceeding unless they have already formally surrendered their parental
    rights. An adoption proceeding cannot proceed until both the biological mother’s and the biological
    father’s parental rights have been adjudicated.”

    Title 36, chapter 1, part 1 is only applicable to cases involving adoption:

    36-1-107. Persons to whom this part is applicable.
    (a) Any person, irrespective of place of birth, citizenship, or place of residence, may be adopted or readopted in accordance with the provisions of this part.
    (b) A single person may file a petition for the adoption of a child.
    (c) An adult may be adopted.

    The plain language of 36-1-102(1)(A)’s definition of abandonment applies only when a child is being made available for adoption, which is not possible in this case.

    OSBORN v. MARR 127 S.W.3d 737 (Tenn. 2004),
    “For example, a legal parent is not similarly situated to a prospective adoptive parent because a legal parent is not seeking to adopt his or her own child.”

    Jones v. Garrett shows the importance of the court to “presume that the legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there.”

    JONES v. GARRETT 92 S.W.3d 835 (Tenn. 2002),
    “This Court’s primary objective in interpreting statutes is “to ascertain and give effect to the intention and purpose of the legislature.” Lipscomb v. Doe, 32 S.W.3d 840, 844 (Tenn. 2000). Legislative intent is best determined by looking at the natural and ordinary meaning of the words used by the General Assembly in the statute. See Mooney v. Sneed, 30 S.W.3d 304, 306 (Tenn. 2000). This Court must “presume that the legislature says in a statute what it means and means in a statute what it says there.” Id. at 307 (citation omitted). “When the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, then this Court usually applies the plain language of the statute to resolve the issue.” Lipscomb, 32 S.W.3d at 844. Therefore, our analysis of a statute’s meaning must begin with the statute itself.

    Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-113(g)(8)(A) enumerates “additional grounds” for terminating parental rights. Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-113(g)(8)(A) expressly states that these “additional grounds” for terminating parental rights do not apply to “the legal parent or guardian of [the] child.” By excluding legal parents from its grounds for termination, this statute affords legal parents a heightened level of legal protection concerning their parental rights. One of the definitions of “legal parent” is “a man who has been adjudicated to be the legal father of the child . . . .” Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-102(26)(D) (1996 Supp. 1999). The legislature’s use of the present tense (“is not the legal parent”) indicates that the grounds for terminating parental rights under Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-113(g)(8)(A) do not apply to persons who are legal parents at the time of the proceeding. “Clearly, Garrett meets the definition of “legal parent” because he was adjudicated to be the father of Penland’s child prior to the proceeding which resulted in the termination of his parental rights. Thus, we find that the plain language of Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-113(g)(8)(A) supports Garrett’s contention that the statute is inapplicable to him.”

    Because Garrett was adjudicated the legal parent of the child before the proceeding which resulted in the termination of his parental rights, Tennessee Code Annotated section 36-1-113(g)(8)(A)(vi) is inapplicable.”

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