Termination of parental rights is a very drastic measure by the state. Termination of parental rights is a measure of last resort to protect a child. One question that comes up is whether termination of parental rights also terminates New Mexico child support obligations.
The New Mexico Court of Appeals case of Aeda v. Aeda dealt with the survival of child support obligations for a parental whose parental rights had been terminated. In brief, does a termination of parental rights end that parent‘s obligation to make child support payments that were imposed by a divorce decree?
In a nutshell, termination of parental rights severs all ties between the parent and child. This means that child support obligations do indeed cease with the termination of parental rights in New Mexico.
In this case, a mother and father were married and had two children. When the mother and father divorced, the divorce decree ordered the father to pay $600 per month in child support until the children reached majority age, were emancipated, or until the court changed the order.
Later on, the mother filed for a termination of the father‘s parental rights, claiming that the father failed to pay child support and that he was physically and mentally abuse toward the mother and children. The father later failed to appear at the hearing, and the district court found that the father abandoned the children. The Court further found that the father‘s abusive actions caused the children to witness “horrific violence and mayhem to those they love.” In short, the district court terminated the father‘s parental rights.
The termination order didn‘t mention any alteration to the child support order in the divorce decree. The termination order was entered in 1993.
In 1991, before the termination order, the mother tried to collect child support from the father with assistance from the Child Support Enforcement Division of the New Mexico Human Services Department (HSD). Between 1991 and 2005, HSD seized about $7620 from the father. It also indicated that he owed more than $42,000 in child support at that point. The father contested the seizure of funds, but he never raised the termination of his parental rights as a defense to failing to pay child support.
The father finally raised the termination of his parental rights as a defense in 2008. At a district court hearing, the court found for the mother, indicating that “parental rights and the duty to support are separate and distinguishable.” The district court later ordered the father to pay past due child support plus interest, totaling more than $117,000 for a fourteen-year period from 1994-2010. The father‘s parental rights had been terminated throughout that period.
The Court of Appeals explained that it would look to the specific language of the Children‘s Code as it had been at the time of the termination of parental rights. After the termination, the legislature amended the Children‘s Code, but the Court indicated that it would construe the language before the amendments. The Court then looked to the language of NMSA 1978, Sections 32-1-54 and -55. The language of the statute says that the termination of parental rights “divests the parent of all legal rights and privileges.” The mother argued that the statute only deals with the limited rights of the parent, not the ability for the child to receive support. The Court reasoned that the language of the statute wasn‘t clear with regard to child support. As such, it looked to the legislative history of the statute.
Specifically, the Court explained that the language of the statute was amended in 1985 to “remove reference to a parent‘s duties and obligations to a child, as well as to a child‘s rights, duties, privileges and obligations with respect to a parent.” Prior to the 1985 amendments, the statute specified that both the parent and child were divested of all legal rights, privileges, duties and obligations with respect to each other.
In other words, prior to the amendment, the parent lost all rights as a parent, and the child lost the right to support from the parent. The Court asked whether the changes in statutory language revealed the legislature‘s intent to “continue support obligations after termination of parental rights.”
In short, the Court reasoned that the changes in language couldn‘t reasonably be interpreted to mean that child support should continue after a termination of parental rights. However, the Court also reasoned that legislative silence on the issue is “at best a tenuous guide to determining legislative intent.”
As such, the Court turned to the language of the Children‘s Code. The Court reasoned that certain parts of the Children‘s Code distinguish between “rights” and “responsibilities,” but that there‘s no clear guidance after termination of parental rights. The Court determined, however, that “termination is meant to eliminate a parent‘s connection with the child.”
Further, the Court reasoned that, because termination eliminates that connection, there‘s “no need for parsing roles thereafter because the parent has none.” The Court emphasized that most out-of-state courts agree, finding that “almost as a matter of definition,” the termination of parental rights also “works to end the parental support obligation.”
In sum, the Court concluded that the termination of the father‘s parental rights in this case also terminated his obligation to pay child support. The Court reversed the judgment against the father and dismissed the case.