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Georgia Case Law Update – Dell v. Dell

Cases dealing with termination of parental rights and stepparent adoption can be tricky, especially if the parent whose rights are sought to be terminated objects. There is a Georgia statute that lays out the exact standard upon which parental rights may be terminated and, while it is a stringent standard, courts have no problem terminating parental rights in favor of a stepparent adoption when all the criteria are met. The Court of Appeals recently affirmed the termination of a mother’s parental rights and adoption of the child by the father’s wife (stepmother) over an objection by the child’s mother. Dell v. Dell, A15A1430 (2015).

In the Dell case, the child’s parents separated when she was a toddler due to the mother’s methamphetamine addiction. The father was granted primary physical and legal custody of the child upon the divorce, with the mother ordered to pay child support (although she only made one payment). Five years later the father remarried and the mother moved to Florida. After that time, the mother made no attempt to contact the father or her child nor paid any child support. Three years later (6 years after the final divorce), the father and stepmother filed a petition to terminate the mother’s parental rights and a petition for stepparent adoption. The court granted both petitions and the mother appealed to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.

In her appeal, the mother alleged, “the evidence was insufficient to support the termination and adoption.” The Court of Appeals disagreed, citing a Georgia code section that allows termination of a parent’s rights “if that parent, for a period of one year or longer immediately prior to the filing of the petition for adoption, without justifiable cause, has significantly failed: (1)To communicate or to make a bona fide attempt to communicate with that child in a meaningful, supportive parental manner; or (2) To provide for the care and support of that child as required by law or judicial decree.” O.C.G.A. § 19-8-10(b)Here, it was undisputed that the mother had failed to communicate with the child in over a year and hadn’t paid child support in five years. However, the mother claims that these failures are justified.

First, she argues that she could not communicate with the child because the father moved without telling her. However, her own testimony established that for the ten months prior to the filing of the petition she knew where they lived but sought no visitation. Next, she argues that her failure to pay child support is excused for a couple reasons, namely that the child support case was closed in 2011and she had no income. Again, her own testimony established that this allegation was unfounded. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the termination of her parental rights and the stepparent adoption.

While the mother’s actions in this case clearly fall within the requisites of the statute, other cases may not be so obvious. If you are a parent seeking to terminate another parent’s parental rights in favor of a stepparent adoption, make sure you are clear on what Georgia law requires. Document everything so you that when you present to the Judge, he/she gets a clear picture of what has been going on and why the termination and adoption would be in the best interests of the child.

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