Termination of Parental Rights Vacated in Winchester, Tennessee: In re Layton W.

October 12, 2020 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother and Father are the never-married parents of Child.

When Child was 2 ½ years old, Father committed crimes. Father pleaded guilty to three counts of felony theft and was sentenced to prison for 12 years.

Nearly a year later, Mother and Stepfather petitioned to terminate Father’s parental rights and for Stepfather to adopt Child.

Father stipulated to abandonment grounds for failure to visit based on his 12-year conviction and abandonment by wanton disregard for Child’s welfare based on his criminal conduct. The contested issue was whether it was in Child’s best interest to terminate Father’s parental rights.

The trial court accepted Father’s stipulation as to grounds and found the best-interest factors in Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106(a) favored termination of Father’s parental rights.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s judgment.

Tennessee courts may not rely on stipulations as grounds for termination of parental rights because the party seeking termination cannot be relieved of its statutory burden of proving clear and convincing evidence that grounds for termination exist.

Whether a statutory ground for termination has been proven by clear and convincing evidence is a question of law, and questions of law are not subject to stipulation by the parties. A stipulation purporting to state a proposition of law is a nullity.

Tennessee law requires that grounds for abandonment and failure to support be proven during the four months immediately preceding the termination petition’s filing or, if a parent is incarcerated, the four months immediately preceding their incarceration.

The Court found the trial court failed to consider the relevant four-month period:

Here, there is no dispute that Father was incarcerated beginning in November 2017 and during the entire four-month period preceding the filing of the petition to terminate his parental rights. The relevant period for proving Father’s abandonment is, therefore, the four months preceding his arrest in November 2017. The trial court’s findings with respect to abandonment by failure to visit and by failure to provide support [] are specific to “at least four months prior to the filing of this Petition.” The trial court’s order states no findings with respect to abandonment during the relevant period—the four months preceding Father’s incarceration in November 2017. Because the trial court’s findings as to grounds for termination of Father’s parental rights did not relate to Father’s conduct during the relevant four-month period prescribed by statute, we vacate the trial court’s determination as to these grounds and remand the case to the trial court with instructions to address the relevant time period as applicable to the facts here.

The Court also faulted the trial court for considering the wrong best-interest factors:

The trial court was clear in stating that it considered all the factors listed under Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-106. Section 36-6-106 addresses factors that a trial court must consider in a suit for annulment, divorce, separate maintenance, or in any other proceeding requiring the court to make a custody determination regarding a minor child. Although the determination a trial court makes under § 36-6-106 also hinges upon the best interest of the child, the best interests factors the trial court must consider in a termination proceeding are set forth in § 36-1-113(i). Because the trial court’s conclusions as to Child’s best interests do not satisfy the analysis mandated by statute, we vacate those conclusions and remand the case to the trial court with instructions to address the pertinent best interests factors as they apply to the facts of this case.

In re Layton W. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Eastern Section, October 6, 2020).

Termination of Parental Rights Vacated in Winchester, Tennessee: In re Layton W. was last modified: October 9th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

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