In re the Adoption of PTH

In re the Adoption of PTH, 2015 MT 316 (Nov. 10, 2015) (McGrath, C.J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court erred by giving full faith and credit to the parenting plan and child support order entered by the California court; and (2) whether the district court erred by refusing to terminate Father’s parental rights.

Short Answer: (1) No; and (2) no.

Affirmed

Facts: PTH was born in 2008 to TC, Mother, and RH, Father. The parents divorced and agreed to a parenting plan approved by the county court in California, where they lived. According to the parenting plan, RH was not required to pay any child support. Neither parent has moved to modify the parenting plan or child support provision.

TC moved to Montana in 2010 and married BC, who is the petitioner for adoption in this case. BC petitioned to terminate RH’s parental rights so that BC can adopt PTH. The sole basis for alleging RH is an unfit parent is that he failed to pay child support during the year prior to the filing of the petition.

RH consented to the jurisdiction of the Montana court and asked the court to modify the California parenting plan. The district court bifurcated the parenting plan issue from the adoption petition.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court held a hearing and entered judgment dismissing the petition. It noted that under Montana law, a parent must support his or her child even without a child support order in place, or risk being found unfit for purposes of adoption. However, the court concluded that it was required to give full faith and credit to the the California order releasing RH from having to pay child support, and concluded there were no grounds for finding RH an unfit parent. It then ordered the parties’ child support obligation to be calculated under the Montana Child Support Guidelines. BC appeals, and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: (1) The U.S. Constitution requires full faith and credit to be given to the judicial proceedings of other states. Montana law requires district courts to enforce child custody orders from another state unless the order has been vacated. The district court properly concluded it was required to recognize the child support order setting RH’s child support obligation at zero.

(2) “Termination of parental rights affects the parent’s fundamental liberty interest, and a decree terminating those rights must be supported by clear and convincing evidence. A parent cannot be declared unfit and have his or her child adopted by another person after complying with a court order setting the amount of support due.” ¶ 18.