MSC affirms continuing child support obligation if parental rights terminated

Justice Robert P. Young Jr.

In March, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that a father whose parental rights were terminated still had an obligation to continue paying child support for his two children. (See In re Beck Minors)

On Monday, in its first opinion of the 2010-2011 term, the Michigan Supreme Court affirmed that decision, but with a different analysis.

The court found the father had no constitutional due process claim, and the legislative clearly intended to keep “parental rights” separate from “parental duties.” (“The sole parental obligation identified in MCL 722.3 is the duty to provide a child with support …)

The plain language of the termination statute, MCL 712A.19b, only implicates “parental rights.” Thus, when parental rights are terminated, what is lost are those interests identified by the Legislature as parental rights. In other words, the terminated
parent loses any entitlement to the “custody, control, services and earnings of the minor . . . .” Because nothing in the language of MCL 712A.19b affects the duty of support articulated in MCL 722.3, the obligation remains intact.

Thus, even after a parent’s rights have been terminated, the obligation to support continues “unless a court of competent jurisdiction modifies or terminates the obligation . . . .” This provision of MCL 722.3 indicates that a court has the discretion to terminate or modify a parent’s obligation to provide support, but is not compelled to do so.

Six of the justices signed the opinion, which was penned by Justice Robert P. Young Jr.  Justice Alton T. Davis recused himself because he was on the Court of Appeals panel that decided the case in March.

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MSC grants leave in child support case

If a court terminates a divorced man’s parental rights, must he continue to pay child support?

In In re: Beck, et al. Dep’t of Human Services v. Beck, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that the termination of parental rights “does not automatically extinguish the parental responsibility of paying child support.”

Support is a continuing obligation until a court specifically orders otherwise, the COA ruled. See, Michigan Lawyers WeeklySpoiled support – Parental termination does not end child support

The COA observed that MCL 712A.19b allows termination of parental rights but says nothing about ending parental responsibilities. And children have an “ongoing right to financial support … independent of a parent’s retention or exercise of his or her parental rights.”

The COA noted several public policy reasons why a support obligation survives termination of parental rights:

  • Eliminating the benefit of child support after a termination of parental rights does not assist in protecting the child from any harm emanating from the prior parental relationship; instead, it denies the child benefits based on the child’s needs and the parent’s ability to pay.
  • [A]bsent an adoption, terminating support from one parent necessarily places the full financial responsibility on the other parent, often with assistance from the state.
  • [I]f a judgment involuntarily terminating parental rights automatically discharges a parent from responsibility for child support, it could potentially lead to results detrimental to the child’s welfare. It may, for example, force a parent to forgo reporting the abusive or neglectful behavior of a co-parent in order to preserve a child’s right to receive financial support. It may also provide a vehicle for the avoidance of a support obligation by a parent; an irresponsible parent could quickly realize that he or she could escape liability for child support by abusing or neglecting their child.

Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court granted leave to appeal in Beck. The MSC has invited the State Bar of Michigan’s Children’s Law and Family Law Sections to file amici briefs.

The case will likely be argued during the Court 2010-2011 term.

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