Second parent adoption for same-sex spouses: Is it necessary?

Second parent adoption, also referred to as co-parent adoption or stepparent adoption, is the process where two parents, one who is a legal parent and one who is a legal stranger, create a permanent and legal relationship between the child and both parents.  The American Academy of Pediatrics, which supports same-sex second parent adoption, and explains these reasons for insuring both parents have legal rights:

Children deserve to know that their relationships with both of their parents are stable and legally recognized. This applies to all children, whether their parents are of the same or opposite sex.

 

When two adults participate in parenting a child, they and the child deserve the serenity that comes with legal recognition.

 

Denying legal parent status through adoption to co-parents or second parents prevents these children from enjoying the psychologic and legal security that comes from having two willing, capable, and loving parents.

New Hampshire has allowed second parent adoption for same-sex couples who are married since 2007, where previously only opposite sex spouses or single persons could adopt. This change came about with the recognition in New Hampshire of civil unions in January 2008, and eventually same-sex marriage in January 2010. It is important to remember that in New Hampshire the parents must be married. Some hospitals in New Hampshire will list a married same-sex couple as co-parents on the birth certificate of their child.

 

However, even with both parents listed on the birth certificate, it is still important to seek an adoption by the non-bio parent. Marriage entitles a non-biological parent to a presumption of parenthood, but that presumption is rebuttable. In other words, parenthood could be contested, and without solidifying parental rights and responsibilities with an adoption, the non-biological parent is vulnerable. Second, most other states do not recognize same-sex marriage, and legal parenthood gained by marriage for a same-sex partner may not be acknowledged in a different state. Adoption creates a binding court decree that is recognized by all states, whether passing through or moving to.

 

The second parent adoption will protect the child's right to inheritance, health insurance, social security benefits and child support. The adoptive parent will have enforceable rights of custody and visitation, and parental rights and responsibilities in the event the biological parent passes away, regardless of the jurisdiction the family resides in. Additionally, when an emergency medical decision needs to be made for the child, the adoptive parent will have the ability to make the decision.

 

Other Resources:

 

Finally! Family Division comes to Manchester

The Family Division is finally scheduled to open its doors in Manchester on November 12, 2009. Currently, domestic cases are scattered throughout the courts, with divorce, parenting and child support cases in Superior Court, juvenile matters in District Court and guardianships and termination of parental rights cases in Probate Court. In contrast, the Family Division courts have subject matter jurisdiction over all of these range of cases as listed in RSA 490-D:2 in one court. The family division hears actions for divorce, legal separation, civil union dissolution, parenting, domestic violence protection, delinquency, CHINS, abuse/neglect, termination of parental rights, guardianship of minors, and adoption actions which relate to any of the following: abuse/neglect, guardianship, or termination of parental rights proceedings.

Late this fall, all of these family cases from Hillsborough North Superior Court, Hillsborough Probate Court and the Manchester District Court will be consolidated into one court that will be located in the Manchester District Court at 35 Amherst Street, Manchester, New Hampshire. All Manchester cases will transferred to the Manchester Family Division, as well as cases from Amherst, Bedford, Lyndeborough, and Mont Vernon which will be heard temporarily in the Manchester Family Division until they are relocated to Merrimack or Milford in the next phase of the family division.

If you have a hearing scheduled after November 12, 2009 in a domestic case in the Hillsborough Superior or Probate Court or the Manchester District Court, make sure you check in with your court to confirm where your hearing will be.

 

Termination of parental rights in New Hampshire

“Surely there can be few loses more grievous than the abrogation of parental rights.” Those words are as true today as they were when Supreme Court Justice Blackmun first wrote them in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services in 1981. Unfortunately, there are times, however grievous, when it is necessary to terminate parental rights against a parents wishes. There are also times when rigorous defense against a petition to terminate parental rights is warranted.

The United States Supreme Court has long recognized the right and the heavy responsibility of the states to terminate the parent-child relationship when there is cause to do so. In New Hampshire, RSA 170-C provides for involuntary termination of parental rights, and the probate courts, and now also the family divisions, have exclusive jurisdiction over such termination of parental rights matters. If the court orders a termination of parental rights, the effect is to sever all legal rights, privileges and duties between the parent and the child. The two become legal strangers in the eyes of the law, with neither parent or child owing any obligations to the other at any point in the future.

 

A termination petition may be filed, pursuant to RSA 170-C:4 by:

 

a.       Either parent;

b.      The child’s guardian or legal custodian;

c.       The child’s foster parent if the child has resided with that foster parent continuously for 24 months; or

d.      An “authorized agency,” which in termination of parental rights petitions would be the Division for Children, Youth and Families, or DCYF.

 

Additionally, the statute sets forth limited conditions on which such a petition may be brought. RSA 170-C:5 lists six circumstances under which a petition for termination of parental rights will be granted:

 

a.       The parents have abandoned the child

b.      The parents have substantially and continuously neglected to provide the child with the care necessary for mental, emotional, or physical health when they are financially able to do so

c.       The parent(s) have failed to correct conditions that lead to a violation of the Child Protection Act, within twelve months of such a finding

d.      The parent is, and will continue to be, mentally incapable, either by deficiency or illness, of caring for the child

e.       The parent knowingly or willingly caused, or allowed to be caused, severe sexual, physical, emotional or mental abuse of the child

f.       The parent has been convicted of any of the following crimes:

a.       The murder of another child of the parent, a sibling or step-sibling of the child, or the child's other parent;

b.      The manslaughter of another child of the parent, a sibling or step-sibling of the child, the child's other parent;

c.       Attempted murder of the child, step-child, sibling or other parent; or

d.      A felony assault which resulted in injury to the child, a sibling or step-sibling of the child, or the child's other parent.

 

Courts will consider the best interest of the child in rendering a decision, sometimes appointing a Guardian Ad Litem to represent that interest. However, even if the court determines that the child’s best interests are served by terminating a parent’s rights, that finding alone is not sufficient to order termination. A court must make an explicit finding under the statute that one or more of the above criteria has been satisfied. The United States Supreme Court states: in Santosky v. Kramer:

The fundamental liberty interest of natural parents in the care, custody, and management of their child is protected by the 14th Amendment, and does not evaporate simply because they have not been model parents or have lost temporary custody of their child to the State.

The Santosky court also held that, except for clear cases of abuse, the government should not separate children from their families or countermand parental authority.

 

Because termination affects a fundamental constitutional right for parents to raise their children as they see fit, New Hampshire courts have increased the burden on the petitioner to prove that TPR is appropriate. In State v. Robert H., the New Hampshire Supreme Court made it clear that for the termination of parental rights, the standard to be imposed is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that 170-C:5 has been satisfied. It is fitting that the petitioner must meet this highest burden as “the rights of parents (over the family) are held to be natural, essential and inherent rights, within the meaning of the New Hampshire Constitution,” the New Hampshire Supreme Court states. “The permanent termination of the rights of parents over their children is even more final than involuntary commitment or delinquency proceedings” both of which require that heightened standard; no other standard would be appropriate.  

 

The above discussion merely scratches the surface of these intricate and complicated issues. Each case has its own set of unique facts and circumstances. The termination of parental rights is extremely serious, and for that reason, as well as those cited above, it is very important that you retain competent counsel if you are involved in a TPR action, whether as the parent or the petitioner. Contact Crusco Law Office, PLLC for further information. 

 

Crusco Law Office, PLLC law clerk, Daniel McLaughlin, contributed to this post.

N.H. Supreme Court holds in Salesky that a guardian may maintain a divorce action

On October 8, 2008 the New Hampshire Supreme Court released an opinion for In the Matter of John Salesky and Jacqueline Salesky. The Court held that a guardian, appointed over the person and estate, may maintain a divorce action on behalf of that person with either the express authority of the Probate Court and as an equitable remedy to prevent an incompetent spouse from having no legal recourse to divorce.  

John and Jacqueline were married in 1983. In 2003, after Jacqueline had left to live with her daughter, John suffered a stroke and then named Jacqueline the co-trustee and co-beneficiary of his trust. John also created separate durable powers of attorney for healthcare, property and financial matters which named Jacqueline as his agent.

 

After John’s stroke, Jacqueline began draining and disbursing significant cash assets. John discovered this and at some time after that John and Jacqueline had an altercation where Jacqueline yelled “John, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, I think I’m going to have to put you in a nursing home”. Sometime in early October 2004, John left Jacqueline and went to live with his brother and sister-in law (the Saleskys).

 

Later in October 2004, John filed a divorce petition on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Jacqueline objected to this and asked for the petition to be dismissed because John was not mentally competent to bring it. In April 2005 John had a full psychiatric evaluation and the report recommended that John receive assistance in making major decisions regarding his life. After this evaluation, the Saleskys petitioned the probate court to appoint them as co-guardians over John’s person and estate. The court denied Jacqueline’s request to appoint her guardian because the parties’ marital status was in the throes of dissolution and therefore appointing her guardian was a conflict of interest.

 

After a three day divorce trial, the court ultimately granted the petition for divorce stating that the Saleskys as co-guardians had the authority to maintain the action on John’s behalf and that irreconcilable differences caused the irremediable breakdown of their marriage.

On appeal, Jacqueline attacked the co-guardians ability to maintain a divorce action on several grounds:

 

1)      Jacqueline argued that the co-guardians did not have the authority to maintain the divorce action and that the superior court interpreted the probate court’s order to confer implied authority upon the Saleskys to maintain the divorce action.

 

The court determined that the plain meaning of the words used in the probate courts orders expressly granted the Saleskys as co-guardians the right to marry and divorce on John’s behalf. To hold otherwise would mean that both John and the Saleskys lacked the ability to exercise those rights.

 

The court also examined the letter of appointment for the Salesky’s where they are specifically granted “ the authority to exercise all of the rights and powers set forth in RSA 464-A:26, I and II” and under section I, specifically requires the guardians to “prosecute or defend actions, claims or proceedings in any jurisdiction for the protection of the estate’s assets.” Therefore, these documents together expressly conferred the right to divorce to the co-guardians.

 

 

2)      Jacqueline then argued that despite the probate court’s order the Saleskys could not prosecute the divorce action because the statute did not grant them that power.

The court looks at the language of the statute stating that RSA 464-A:25 sets out the general powers and duties of a guardian over a person, and RSA 464-A:26 sets out the general powers and duties of a guardian over an estate.

 

Both statutes include a catchall provision that says: “The court may limit the powers of the guardian… or impose additional duties if it deems such action desirable for the best interest of the ward.

 

The plain meaning of the catchall provisions is that the duties are not exclusive. These provisions expressly give the probate court the authority to impose “additional duties.” The only limit upon the additional duties is that those must be “desirable for the best interests of the ward.”

 

3)      Jacqueline also argued that the legislature could not have reasonably intended, as a matter of public policy, to grant probate courts the authority to allow guardians to maintain divorce petitions.

 

The court examined a number of cases holding a competent spouse would have absolute and final control over the marriage if a guardian could not maintain an action for divorce.  That kind of situation leaves the incompetent spouse without adequate legal recourse against potential abuse. In addition, the court points out that these policy concerns are evident in this case because while Jacqueline had withdrawn substantial funds from John’s accounts while acting under a power of attorney, the Saleskys were merely maintaining a divorce action that John had brought before he was found to be incompetent.

 

Crusco Law Office Law Clerk Marisa L. Ulloa contributed to this post.

Common law marriage in New Hampshire

The New Hampshire Supreme Court released an opinion on June 3, In Re Estate of David J. Bourassa that clarified the requirements for Common Law Marriage in New Hampshire. The relevant Statute is RSA 457:39. New Hampshire does not recognize common law marriage. However, what the State may recognize is what can be considered a common law marriage by death. The requirements are in three parts:

  1. Cohabitate for 3 or more years preceding death of one partner; and
  2. Acknowledge one another as husband and wife; and
  3. Generally presumed to be husband and wife in the community

This means that a cohabitating couple who is not legally married who have been together for 3 or more years and hold themselves out to be husband and wife are considered legally married upon the death of one partner. It is the death of one partner which triggers the statute if all other elements are satisfied. A couple who simply cohabitate for 3 or more years is not considered legally married under the law.

In the Bourassa case, the couple, David and Deborah, had cohabitated for 10+ years and had one child together. When David died Deborah filed a petition to be declared David’s common law spouse. The Court determined that Deborah had failed to show that she and the deceased fulfilled the last two prongs of the statute. They had not acknowledged or generally been presumed to be married. On the contrary, they were very vocal in making sure everyone knew they were not married.

Blog Credit: Marisa L. Ulloa, Crusco Law Office Law Clerk