How Do You Terminate Parental Rights?

Understanding the circumstances when the parent-child relationship ends

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on July 12, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorney Joseph P. Cadicina

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Parents have important legal rights and responsibilities in caring for their children. From making important education and health care decisions to providing for a child’s daily needs, they are responsible for all aspects of a child’s growth and development. 

The purpose of parental rights is to provide for the best interests of the child. Sometimes, however, a child’s best interests require that their parent’s rights be terminated—so that the child can be put in the legal custody of someone else. 

Termination of parental rights means that the parent-child relationship has ended, and the parent no longer has legal rights over the child. Once parental rights are terminated, a parent can no longer: 

  • Raise, or provide for the well-being of, the child  
  • Be in contact with the child 
  • Pay child support 
  • Have a say in whether the child is adopted 

This article is an overview of the legal grounds and process for terminating parental rights. As Joseph P. Cadicina, a family law attorney at Cadacina Law in Morristown, New Jersey, says, “it’s a very involved process.”  

If you are facing termination of your rights as a parent, it’s essential to seek legal help from a family law attorney as soon as possible.  

Most of the time… when we see the termination of parental rights, it’s the division of child protective services that initiates the proceeding… There’s an investigation, and there also must be a hearing before the court can terminate an individual’s parental rights. The timeframe for this process is typically several months.

Joseph P. Cadicina

Grounds for Termination of Parental Rights 

Every state has laws that say when parental rights can be terminated, as well as the process for terminating those rights.  

While state laws vary, there are some general grounds for terminating parental rights across most states. It’s helpful to divide the grounds for termination into two categories: 

  • Involuntary termination 
  • Voluntary termination 

Option 1: Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights 

To involuntarily terminate a parent’s parental rights, courts generally have to establish two things

  • Show through clear and convincing evidence that the parent is unfit to care for the child 
  • That it’s in the child’s best interests to terminate parental rights 

What does it mean for a parent to be unfit, or for termination of parental rights to be in the child’s best interests? As mentioned above, every state has statutes addressing these issues, and statutory requirements vary. Some state laws give specific requirements, while others are more open-ended in listing factors for the court to weigh in on. 

Generally, however, the following factors can be grounds for the involuntary termination of parental rights: 

  • Severe or ongoing child abuse, including physical and emotional abuse  
  • Sexual abuse, including sexual assault 
  • A parent’s incapacity due to long-term mental illness or substance abuse  
  • Neglect of the child’s physical or mental health 
  • Failing to provide for the child’s welfare and education  
  • Not staying in contact with the child  
  • Long-term imprisonment for felony convictions that prevent the parent from caring for the child 
  • No reasonable efforts at reunification with the child 

Option 2: Voluntary Relinquishment of Parental Rights 

Sometimes, termination of parental rights is not involuntary. In fact, the primary example of voluntary relinquishment of parental rights is in adoption. 

For someone to adopt a child, the birth parent’s parental rights must first be terminated so the rights can be transferred to the adoptive parents. The adoptive parents then become the child’s legal parents.  

Adoptive parents may be family members of the child (such as a stepparent) or individuals unrelated to the child. By becoming the child’s legal parents, adoptive parents gain both physical and legal custody of the child.  

Who Can Terminate Parental Rights? 

A variety of individuals can take the legal steps necessary to terminate a parent’s rights: 

  • Another parent 
  • A family member 
  • A legal guardian of the child 
  • A child protective services (CPS) official petitioning the court for termination 

According to Cadicina, “most of the time in New Jersey, when we see the termination of parental rights, it’s the division of child protective services that initiates the proceeding.” 

It’s important to realize that terminating parental rights is a grave and rare matter. Thus, individuals who take steps to terminate someone else’s parental rights must be prepared to present evidence for the grounds for termination. 

How To Terminate Parental Rights 

The first step in terminating parental rights is for a party to submit a petition for termination of parental rights to their local family court. With a petition, termination proceedings are initiated in the court. Looking at the state’s statutory requirements, the court considers whether one of the grounds for termination of parental rights has been met.  

To ascertain whether parental rights should be terminated, the court will gather information through investigations and other fact-finding methods, such as witness interviews. 

“There’s an investigation, and there also must be a hearing before the court can terminate an individual’s parental rights,” Cadicina says. “The timeframe for this process is typically several months.” 

If the court finds that a statutory ground for the termination of parental rights is met, it will issue a court order terminating the rights of the parent. 

Questions for an Attorney 

Many family law attorneys provide free consultations for potential clients. Initial consultations allow you to get legal advice and consider if you need legal help. Sometimes, consultation fees are counted toward future legal services if you do hire an attorney; you can ask about pricing upfront. 

To get the most out of a meeting, ask an attorney informed questions such as: 

  • What are your fees and billing options? 
  • What are the requirements for the termination of parental rights in my state? 
  • What is the legal process for the termination of parental rights? 
  • Can terminated parental rights be reinstated?  
  • Who gets parental rights if mine are terminated? 
  • Do foster parents have parental rights? Do adoptive parents? 
  • What is the role of a legal guardian? 

Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship. Look for a family law attorney in the Super Lawyers directory for legal help. 

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