A mother who intended for her long-time partner to adopt a child she had with another man must first show cause as to why she and her partner can’t marry, and then establish why a requirement mandating that both biological parents relinquish their parental rights before an adoption should be excused in her case.
The court’s scrutiny of the adoption process in the case –In re Adoption of M.E.L., No. 109 MAP 2022 (Pa. July 19, 2023) – reinforces a necessary requirement for unmarried partners.
Facts in the Case
According to the court’s opinion, C.J. (the mother) and D.D.L. (the father) were married, had a child in February 2016, and divorced in July 2018. The mother and child had been living with the mother’s partner since March 2018.
In September 2019, the father signed an agreement giving the mother sole physical and legal custody of the child. Two years later, the mother and her partner filed a petition to terminate the father’s parental rights and filed a report of her partner’s intention to adopt after the father’s parental rights were terminated.
In February 2022, the York County Orphans’ Court granted the termination petition and indicated that it intended to grant the petition for adoption after the 30-day appeal period. At the hearing on the petition, the mother testified that the child had not seen the father since September 2019, the child views the partner as her father, and she and her partner had no immediate plans to marry.
The father did not appear at the hearing, but later appealed to the Superior Court. He argued that the proposed adoption was invalid and that his parental rights should not have been terminated because the mother had not relinquished her parental rights or otherwise established grounds for the adoption.
Under Pennsylvania’s Adoption Act, both biological parents of an adoptee must relinquish their parental rights before the child can be adopted unless it is a stepparent adoption or if the parent has demonstrated “cause shown” why they cannot marry to excuse the requirement.
In March 2023, the Superior Court vacated the Orphans’ Court order terminating the father’s parental rights and remanded the case. The court said the lower court should determine whether the mother had satisfied the “cause shown” why she cannot marry when the child was to be adopted by a person other than a spouse.
The father appealed, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to review whether the Superior Court erred when it remanded the case.
The Court Ruling
First, the Supreme Court held that the mother has established the grounds for termination of the father’s parental rights as the father has had no contact with the child for more than two years – well over the six months set forth in state law – and views the partner as her father.
“Thus, there is no dispute that termination of Father’s parental rights would be appropriate under [state law] if the proposed adoption by (her) Partner satisfies the requirements set forth in the Adoption Act,” the court said.
Next, the court explained that because the mother does not intend to relinquish her parental rights in agreeing to the proposed adoption by her partner, she must show that one of the exceptions under the Adoption Act applies. As the mother and her partner aren’t married and do not satisfy the spousal exception, the court looked at whether the mother has shown cause why they cannot marry to allow the adoption to proceed.
To satisfy the for cause shown exception, a party must first demonstrate why they cannot meet the statutory requirements for adoption and then show why the purpose of the act’s parental rights requirement would be fulfilled or unnecessary. The court cited two cases involving same-sex partners who were legally prohibited from marrying prior to marriage equality, and, therefore, could not establish the statutory requirements for adoption.
The mother claimed that she has established cause because the proposed adoption would facilitate a new parent-child relationship, but the court said she “puts the proverbial cart before the horse.”
“Permitting a parent, such as Mother, to simply waive the relinquishment requirement in circumstances where she offers her long-term partner as an adoptive resource, but does not first demonstrate why they cannot marry, would allow the ‘cause shown exception’ to swallow the rule,” the court said. Doing so “could lead to abuse by spiteful parents seeking to terminate the rights of unwanted parents,” the court added.
The court agreed that the case should be remanded to the Orphans’ Court for consideration of whether Mother may establish cause to excuse the relinquishment requirement.
Implications for Family Law
Courts must strike a delicate balance when it comes to preserving the rights of biological parents and safeguarding the best interests of the child.
The case highlights the legal process of terminating parental rights and emphasizes the importance of clear and convincing evidence to justify such termination. It also sheds light on the adoption process and how prospective adoptive parents must comply with state laws and regulations. This case may also have ramifications due to marriage equality for unmarried LGBT partners.
Because of the complicated nature of these cases, parents dealing with issues such as termination of parental rights or adoption should consult with an experienced family law attorney.
KingSpry’s Family Law and Adoption Law attorneys are well-versed in legal matters related to parental termination and adoption. Please contact our team if you have questions or need help obtaining or protecting your parental rights.