Much Ado About an Alabama Supreme Court Case
The media can’t get enough of talking about this case, but I’m not sure it has much practical impact.
You may have read about it in the newspaper or heard it on the TV news. The case is Ex parte M.D.C., Case No. 1071625 (Ala. Sept. 30, 2009). The headline is that termination of parental rights doesn’t terminate the duty to pay child support. To which experienced family lawyers respond, “So?”
It certainly seems important. The main opinion runs 42 pages, and when you couple it with the concurring and dissenting opinions, we’re up to 78 pages. Anything that takes that long to say must be significant, right? And in one sense, it is. Parental rights matter, and so does child support. My reason for declining to get too worked up about it is that there are relatively few parties out there like the parties in this case, for good reason. But we’ll get to that later. First, let’s see what it took so many words to say.
Dad’s the bad guy here. Mom and Dad had two children while they were married. Shortly after his divorce from Mom, Dad pleaded guilty to raping her older daughter from a previous marriage. Dad served prison time for the rape. Two years later, the juvenile court granted Mom’s petition to terminate Dad’s parental rights. A year and a half after that, the state filed on Mom’s behalf to recover the child support. This resulted in a declaration that Dad owed an arrearage of more than $17,000 in back child support.
Dad and the state (apparently by now active on both sides of this case) filed a motion for a new trial, which was granted. The new trial resulted in a finding that the termination of Dad’s parental rights also extinguished his duty to pay child support. The Court of Civil Appeals affirmed in a lengthy opinion of its own, at M.D.C. v. K.D., Case No. 2070465 (Ala. Civ. App. August 15, 2008). For clarity, we’ll call the Supreme Court case “M.D.C. Supreme Court” and the appeals court case “M.D.C. Appeals Court”. The appeals court, acknowledging that this question of whether termination of parental rights also terminates the duty to pay child support is one of first impression in Alabama, said that the majority of states that have considered this question have held in the affirmative, that the termination of parental rights also terminates duty to pay child support. The appeals court also noted that the purpose of Alabama’s juvenile laws is to facilitate stability and permanence in the lives of children and that it helps to place children up for adoption to have the relationship with their biological parent totally severed.
In reversing the appeals court, the Supreme Court cited and quoted at length the dissenting opinion from Judge Terry Moore. Note to appeals court: when the court above you devotes one paragraph to your majority opinion and more than 45 to the dissent, you sort of know you’re in trouble even before you see how the court ruled.
Judge Moore, channeled by the Supreme Court, started by emphasizing that the Alabama Child Protection Act (CPA), Ala. Code § 12-15-101 et seq., speaks only of terminating parental rights, not of terminating parental duties. And because one of the enduring principles of statutory construction is that the words used in a statute should be given their plain, ordinary, and commonly understood meaning, “the term ‘parental rights’ cannot be construed to encompass the responsibility for child support.” M.D.C. Appeals Court at 15. “Had the legislature intended that a termination of ‘parental rights’ would also include a termination of ‘parental responsibilities,’ such as the responsibility to support the parent’s children, it could have used language apt to that purpose.” M.D.C. Appeals Court at 18.
Judge Moore acknowledged that the majority in M.D.C. Appeals Court was correct in stating that the vast majority of other states that have considered this question have ruled that the termination of parental rights also terminates the duty to pay support, but he pointed out that most other states’ statutes explicitly provide that a termination of rights terminates the duty to pay support.
The majority opinion in M.D.C. Supreme Court summed up its ruling in this way:
In summary, involuntarily terminating a parent’s rights to his or her child does not, by operation of law, extinguish the parent’s responsibility to pay child support for the benefit of that child as established by a prior judgment. The CPA, which governs the termination of parental rights, does not address the termination of child support. Reading the CPA in conjunction with the [Alabama Juvenile Justice Act, Ala. Code § 12-15-1 et seq,], if a juvenile court finds clear and convincing evidence indicating that a parent is unable or unwilling to discharge his or her parental responsibilities, the juvenile court may on that basis terminate the rights of the parent to the child but not the parent’s responsibility to provide child support. Additionally, the plain language of the CPA refers to “parental rights” and should not be construed to encompass the responsibility for child support. Had the legislature intended that a termination of parental rights would also terminate parental responsibilities, such as the responsibility to support the child, the legislature could have easily used such language. A judgment terminating a parent’s rights immediately and permanently severs the parent’s rights to custody, control, and affiliation with the child. The judgment forever prevents the parent from asserting any parental rights over the child and, thus, protects the child from future harm flowing from the parent whose rights have been terminated. Nothing in the CPA prevents the child from being entitled to at least the beneficial aspect of the obligation for support arising out of the parent-child relationship. With the goal of promoting stability and permanency, there is nothing in Alabama law preventing a child from entering the adoption process merely because its natural parent, whose parental rights have been terminated, remains under court order to pay child support and the subsequent adoption will terminate the child-support obligation by law. To hold otherwise would reward the most egregious cases of parental abuse and neglect by that parent’s not having the burden of paying child support. M.D.C. Supreme Court at 40-41 (footnotes omitted).
Concurring separately, Justices Stuart and Smith, both former juvenile court judges, acknowledged that they had always understood that terminating parental rights also terminated child support but that, in Justice Stuart’s words, “the plain language of the relevant statutes indicates that only parental rights and not parental responsibilities are automatically terminated. I cannot read them any other way.” M.D.C. Supreme Court at 43. Both recommended that the legislature clarify the statute. Justice Smith specifically stated that the Alabama Department of Human Resources now must decide what to do with children whose parent has lost parental rights but who have not yet been adopted, and he recommended that DHR appeal to the legislature for clarity.
In his dissent, Justice Murdock repeated what others had acknowledged, that the law of Alabama has always understood a termination of parental rights to be a termination of all aspects of the parental relationship, including the duty to pay support. He pointed out that the phrase “termination of parental rights” already included the concept of terminating child support when the legislature adopted the CPA. “Thus, contrary to the main opinion’s assumption that the legislature intended for the CPA to provide for the termination of parental rights but not the concurrent termination of parental obligations, we must actually presume the opposite.” M.D.C. Supreme Court at 57-58.
In a section of his dissent entitled “Unintended Consequences, Justice Murdock speculated that the majority’s opinion (a) may generate a rash of arrearage filings for child support from parents whose rights have been terminated; (b) may prompt an unexpected exploration by children of parents whose rights have been terminated of what other “rights” those children might have against their parents, like freedom to associate with their abusive parent, or duty to provide post-majority support for college; (c) may increase the inappropriate filing of petitions to terminate parental rights (by removing the loss of child support as one of the principal costs of those filings); and (d) may make adoption proceedings more complex because deadbeat parents might be more likely to oppose the termination of their parental rights if they know they might still be liable for child support.
On the ground in Alabama. So if this is such a major change in Alabama law, why am I unexcited about it? Two main reasons. I don’t have statistics on either of these observations, just my anecdotal understanding about how parenting and family law works. First, we’re really not talking about that many children. During my family law practice, I can truthfully say I have NEVER seen a judge terminate parental rights of a parent unless and until there is a parent waiting in the wings ready, willing, and able to adopt the child. The reason is simple. What judge would ever desire to bastardize a child? Better the deadbeat, abusive parent, the reasoning goes, than no parent at all. In those cases where someone insists on pursuing a “naked” termination of parental rights, a good judge will always appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the child. In almost all cases, the GAL will oppose termination (again, due to that bastardization thing).
Judges have myriad options to protect children short of permanently terminating their parental rights. Terminating parental rights is a blunderbuss, rarely used successfully against a parent with competent counsel who objects to it. There are just too many alternatives to termination, alternatives the judge is required to consider and exhaust before terminating parental rights.
The second reason is that the overwhelming majority of the kind of bad actors whose parental rights get terminated are also destitute and relatively immune to claims for child support. Sure, they may owe thousands of dollars in child support arrearage after this ruling, but let’s be honest: only in the rarest of circumstances will anybody other than the 7/11 that sells them beer ever see much of their money.
Yes, the law as we have perceive it has changed. Judges and journalists find that fascinating, but we’re not talking about changing the lives of very many real people.