Sunday, March 14, 2010

Child Support Still Owed When Parental Rights Involuntarily Terminated

There has been some buzz among family law practitioners this week concerning the Michigan Court of Appeals' decision in the DHS vs Beck case.

The COA held that a father, so neglectful and abusive that his parental rights were terminated, nevertheless remained obligated to pay child support for his two children.  The decision, arising from an Oakland County abuse case, will be published and thus binding on all Michigan family courts.

The father did not appeal the termination of his parental rights; only the family court's ruling that he remained obligated to pay support for his children.  On appeal, the father argued that he was denied due process because he was arbitrarily deprived of his property (i.e. his support payments).  The intermediate appellate court, however, was unimpressed, ruling that the father failed to articulate how, exactly, his due process rights were implicated.

One of the issues to arise in the Beck case was that the parental termination provisions of the Juvenile Code are silent as to the corresponding "parental responsibilities".

The Court went on to analyze the rights and duties implicated by a family court's decision to terminate parental rights while continuing to obligate support payments.  Michigan common law has long established a minor child's right to support from both parents.  The Court also recognized a parent's right to the "companionship, care, custody and management of his or her children."

In upholding the Oakland County Family Court, the COA ruled that a child's right to support cannot be bargained away in a termination proceeding.  The Beck panel decided that if the legislature had intended to terminate a parent's obligations along with his parental rights, it would have said so in the statute.

The Court also relied on it's earlier decisions that held support obligations continued in the wake of a voluntary termination or adoption.

Also of note in the dicta of the Court's decision was an express acknowledgment of the current "times of difficult financial circumstances."  The Beck panel realized that in such difficult economic times, public policy is served by not shifting all support and maintenance obligations onto the custodial parent or, in some cases, the state.

Finally, in deciding the case, the COA was careful to avoid the unintended consequence of encouraging the neglect and abuse of innocent children by seeking a parental termination.  Since an irresponsible parent cannot escape his support obligations by abusing or neglecting his children, the better interests of those children are served.

This is a sound decision by the intermediate appellate court.  Good thing the COA granted father's delayed application for leave to appeal (a discretionary appeal as opposed to an appeal of right).  Making a parent pay for their children despite their neglect is in both the child's and the community's best interest.

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