Not everyone wants to be a parent. In some cases, an unexpected pregnancy creates financial challenges. In others it can prolong contact with a former partner that you broke up with for a reason. If that unwise relationship results in a child you want nothing to do with will Michigan allow you to sign away your parental rights rather than pay child support or go after custody or parenting time?
It doesn’t seem like it would happen very often. Most of the time, parties to a divorce are fighting for custody. But from time to time, particularly in cases that start solely over child support, a parent will ask me:
“Can I just sign away my parental rights and be done with it?”
These parents don’t want to be parents. They want to wash their hands of the situation and forget it ever happened. But here’s the problem: the child can’t do that.
Parental Rights are Child’s Rights Too
Many mothers and fathers think of custody and visitation as parental rights — things they are entitled to as a parent of the child. They “get to” see their kids or have their kids live with them. But Michigan law puts the emphasis more on the child than the parent.
Children have a right to financial support from both parents. Children have a right to have a close, nurturing relationship with both parents (unless it would be unsafe). These are their rights first, not the parents’. When deciding between two fit parents for custody and parenting time, it is the child’s best interests that carry the day.
This can be difficult for some parents to remember, and to understand. They get wrapped up in how they feel about their spouse or former partner. They assume because they want nothing to do with the other party, the child won’t either. But that person is the child’s mom or dad. Especially when the person has been involved for a while, there is attachment there. When my client asks if the other parent can just sign away their parental rights I encourage them to think about it from the child’s perspective — if it was their mother or father would they want to have that person disappear from their lives?
Absentee Parents and Termination of Rights
The question gets a little stickier when dealing with absentee parents. If one parent has been in prison, in another state, or otherwise absent for years on end, it may seem more reasonable for them to sign away their parental rights rather than dragging them back into the child’s life.
Still, Michigan has a policy against “bastardizing” children. The courts don’t like it when there is only one parent to look after and provide for the child. After all, if something were to happen to the custodial parent (often Mom) and the non-custodial parent (often Dad) were allowed to sign away his rights, the child would become a ward of the state until he or she could be placed with another family member or adopted.
As a general rule, in Michigan you cannot sign away your parental rights unless you are signing them over to somebody else.
Revocation of Paternity Signs Over Parental Rights
In the early days of a child’s life you may be able to sign away your parental rights if you weren’t the right parent in the first place. If you were married to the child’s mother, or mistakenly believed you were the biological father of a child, you have 3 years from the child’s birth to revoke your standing as a legal parent (the statute says father) if you can show that you are not the biological father and it is in the best interests of the child to allow you to step away. In most cases, that is because the biological father is there to step into your place. A presumed father (the husband of a child’s mother) can also wait to raise this in a divorce, but it may be harder to demonstrate stepping away is in the child’s best interest if you have served as father for some time.
Consent to Adoption Terminates Parental Rights
In other cases, you can sign away your parental rights if the child’s other parent has remarried and the new spouse is willing to take the child on through step-parent adoption. In these cases, you can appear before a judge or hire an attorney to sign consent forms that allow your parental rights to be terminated and the adoption to go through. If you have been entirely absent financially and physically for at least 2 years, your former partner can terminate your parental rights even without your consent.
There are also special rules that allow a very new parent to surrender an unwanted child to the state and sign paperwork waiving her parental rights and clearing the way for the child to be placed with an agency for adoption. However, these are very specific rules that are usually handled right in the hospital after the birth.
Being a parent is as much a responsibility as a right. Michigan law says that, in most cases, you can’t just sign away your parental rights. Instead, you must take responsibility for the child you created and support the child to the best of your ability. Doing otherwise will just get you into bigger trouble with the court later on.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a family law attorney at Schmidt & Long, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She represents parents in divorce, custody and child support cases, as well as step-parent adoptions. If you need help considering your options for parental rights, contact Schmidt & Long today to schedule a consultation.