Terminating Parental Rights in Wisconsin

As a divorce attorney, I have been asked many times by clients if they can terminate the parental rights of the other parent.  I have also been asked by a parent whether they can voluntarily terminate his or her parental rights.  Usually, this question is posed out of frustration or anger at the other parent.  Or, one of the parents does not want to pay child support so they make this request.

In Wisconsin, the termination of parental rights of only one parent at the request of the other generally cannot happen unless there is an accompanying step-parent adoption.  In other words, the parental rights of a parent cannot be terminated unless there is a new parent ready and willing to step into that role.  Wisconsin’s policy is that a child is entitled to have two legal parents to support them.

And, the willingness of a step-parent to adopt is not enough to trigger a termination of parental rights if the other parent does not agree.  There are necessary grounds to be established for an involuntary termination of parental rights.  For example, the most common ground is abandonment which is defined as a failure to visit or communicate for a period longer than three (3) months, unless good cause is shown as to why the parent failed to visit or communicate (i.e. denial or interference of periods of placement).  Other grounds are failure to assume parental responsibility, abuse, incest, sexual assault, homicide or attempted homicide of the other parent and a parent who has a continuing disability.

Even if all of the above criteria are met, the court must then consider other factors when deciding to terminate parental rights.  These factors include what is in the best interests of the child, the child’s family relationships (i.e. grandparents),  the wishes of the child and whether the child can enter into a new stable family situation as a result of the termination.

Recently, a reader pointed out to us that a termination of parental rights can occur without a step-parent adoption.  While this is true, it is a rare situation where there are usually extreme or exigent circumstances such as when abuse, severe neglect or a serious crime against the custodial parent or child is involved.  Also, if the state is involved, as in where a parent or parents have been deemed to be unfit for an extended period of time, a termination of parental rights is sometimes granted.  These are not typically situations, however, which generally impact upon divorce or family matters.  We are not experts in these other types of cases and, therefore, cannot provide any further information.  If you believe your situation falls under one of these categories, we encourage you to seek the advice of an experienced attorney in that area.

Permanently terminating a parent’s rights to his or her children is a serious and life-changing event for both parent and child.  Frustration with your ex-spouse or an unwillingness to see your children or pay child support is not enough to trigger this most serious of actions.  Under Wisconsin law, the rights of the child are paramount and a child is entitled to two legal parents.  This is true regardless of the feelings of one parent towards the other and regardless if a parent has no interest in the child(ren) and/or does not want to pay child support.

Please see our other blog post on this for additional information:  https://wisconsinfamilylaw.info/2016/07/12/termination-of-parental-rights-frequently-asked-questions

-Teri M Nelson