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Court News Ohio

Right to Contest Adoption Survives When Court Relieves Parent of Paying Child Support

A child’s natural parent does not give up the right to consent to the child’s adoption for failure to provide “maintenance and support” if the parent receives a court order relieving the parent of the obligation to pay child support, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that if a parent receives a court order that allows the parent not to pay child support, that order supersedes any other legal requirement to financially support the child. Under Ohio law, a noncustodial parent must consent to an adoption. But that right is lost if the parent either fails to have meaningful contact with the child or to provide for the child financially within the year before the proposed adoption without “justifiable cause.”

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy explains that Ohio parents are subject to a general legal obligation to support their children, but when there are court orders for child support, those orders establish the parents’ obligation of support. A Clermont County Juvenile Court had granted the father of a child identified in court records as “B.I.” a zero support order. The Court held that the lack of payments made pursuant to that order could not be used to argue that the natural father lost his right to consent to an adoption for failure to financially provide for the child.

“Every day, families rely on court orders to define parents’ lawful obligations. They structure their lives around what the court has ordered. Our decision today ensures that the judgment of the court with the jurisdiction to set child-support levels can be relied upon,” she wrote.

Justices Judith L. French, R. Patrick DeWine, and Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Patrick F. Fischer and Melody J. Stewart each wrote separate dissenting opinions.

Father Imprisoned, Stepfather Seeks Adoption
B.I. was born in 2007. The child’s mother, identified as “K.I.,” and father, “G.B.,” were never married. In 2009, G.B. entered prison. In 2010, the mother requested the juvenile court terminate G.B.’s child support obligations and reduce his unpaid child support balance to zero.

K.I. then married G.I. In 2016, G.I. filed a petition in Hamilton County Probate Court to adopt his stepchild, B.I. He argued that under R.C. 3107.07(A), the father’s consent was not required. The law states a probate court can determine that a natural parent’s consent is not required if the parent failed without justifiable cause to provide more than minimal contact or failed to provide maintenance and support “as required by law or judicial decree.”

The stepfather abandoned his claim that G.B. had failed to provide more than minimal contact, but he argued that G.B. failed to provide adequate support to maintain his right to object to the adoption. G.I. noted that in the year before the adoption, G.B. received $18 a month as prison income, and, in addition, his parents and a friend deposited $5,152 into his prison account.

A probate court magistrate determined that even though G.B. had a judicial decree that did not obligate him to pay child support, he had money available and the obligation to provide support for B.I. The magistrate ruled the father’s consent was not needed.

The probate court judge overruled the magistrate and found the valid, zero support order provided justifiable cause under R.C. 3107.07(A) and that G.B.’s consent was required. The stepfather appealed the decision to the First District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the probate court’s decision. G.I. appealed that decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Law Favors Retention of Parental Rights
This case at its core raises the question of whether a parent who relies on a court order removing the support obligation could suffer the “family law equivalent of the death penalty,” which is the permanent loss of parental rights because of an adoption, Justice Kennedy wrote.

The majority opinion stated a three-step analysis is required to determine whether a parent has failed to provide support as required by law or judicial decree and is therefore susceptible to losing the right to consent to an adoption. The probate court must first determine what the law or decree regarding support required. Then the court considers whether the parent complied with the law or order, and finally, if the parent did not comply, whether there was justifiable cause for that failure.

The Court explained that in a case where the judicial decree provides that a parent has no requirement to pay support, the analysis ends there. Since the judicial decree establishes that the parent has no obligation to provide maintenance and support, the parent cannot lose the right to consent to the adoption for failure to provide maintenance and support.

The issue in the case is whether — even in a case with a judicial decree relieving a parent of any child support — there is a separate obligation that arises by law under which that parent still is required to provide maintenance and support to the child. The opinion explained that R.C. 3103.03(A) requires that all spouses and parents have obligations to support themselves, each other, and their minor children from their own property and labor. That statute was based on a similar common law obligation, the opinion stated. The Court then noted that statutory law developed to allow courts to order child support when a marriage ends, and was further extended to cases where the parents of the child were never married.

The majority opinion stated the general statutory obligation to provide support and court decrees ordering parents to provide support are not “side-by-side obligations,” but instead the child-support order, when it exists, establishes the parent’s obligation to the child.

Under R.C. 3107.07(A), “[a] parent is subject either to the general obligation or to a specific obligation and is evaluated accordingly,” the opinion stated.  The Court held that in this case the father’s obligation was determined by the Clermont County Juvenile Court and that after the trial court reduced the child-support obligation to zero, the father had no other obligation under the statutory scheme to continue to provide maintenance and support to B.I.

The Court noted that “[t]he most important consequence of the contrary holding advocated by the stepfather is that a parent — even one that has continuous and meaningful contact with his or her child — could forever lose all contact with that child by relying on a court’s no-support order.” The Court concluded that “[t]he General Assembly did not create a child-support system in which a domestic-relations or juvenile court determines by court order an adequate level of child support, only to have a probate court sever the parental rights of a parent because the parent abided by that support order.”

Dissent Finds Both Law and Decree Apply
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Fischer argued under the “plain meaning” of R.C. 3107.07(A) both the requirements of the law and a court order apply. And if a parent fails to follow either, the probate court must to determine whether there was justifiable cause for the failure to provide support, he wrote.

Unlike the majority’s three-step process, Justice Fischer wrote that four steps need to be considered: First, the probate court must examine the judicial decree presented. Regardless of whether the decree orders no support, the court must move to the next step and determine if any support is required by “law.” Then, the court must determine if the parent failed to meet either or both of the requirements. Finally, if the parent failed to fulfill both, then the court must determine if the parent had justifiable cause to not provide support.

The dissenting opinion noted the judicial decree impacts many aspects of the final determination and a judge needs to weigh several factors before deciding if the parent lost the right to consent.

“For example, the court should include in its weighing process whether offers of assistance from the noncustodial parent were rebuffed by the custodial parent and whether the custodial parent agreed to the no-support decree rather than contested it,” he wrote.

Justice Fischer wrote that he would remand the case to the probate court to determine if any “law” required G.B. to provide support to B.I. in the one-year time period before the adoption.

Court Order Does Not End Legal Duty of Support, Dissent Stated
Justice Stewart explained in her dissent that when a court enters a child-support order, that order supersedes any general duty of support under state or common law, as the majority noted. However, when a judicial decree relieves the parent of the obligation, as in G.B.’s case, the duty of support imposed by state law still exists.

“To hold otherwise would effectively eliminate any duty that a parent has to support his or her child,” she wrote.

As an example, Justice Stewart wrote that a parent with a child support order might have the order terminated on the grounds that the parent was going to be incarcerated or was disabled and did not have the financial means to support a child. But what if that parent obtained a financial windfall? The parent would then have the means, and the general duty, to support the child and would apply even if there was no new court order to pay support.

Chief Justice Sided with Dissent
In a one-page dissent, Chief Justice O’Connor wrote that she joined the reasoning of Justice Stewart’s dissenting opinion. However, she noted that she did not join Justice Stewart’s opinion regarding the burden of proof standards discussed.

2018-0181, 2018-0182, 2018-0350, and 2018-0351.In re Adoption of B.I., Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-2450.

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