Karen S. Hindson

A recent stepparent adoption case before the Georgia Court of Appeals reminds us that adoption laws are to be construed in favor of the natural parents.

The March 1, 2013, decision Hafer v. Lowry involved a stepparent adoption petition filed a month after the stepfather married the child’s monther.  The stepparent adoption was filed under a Georgia law that permits terminating the natural parent’s rights to the child and adoption by the stepparent if the court finds that, for a period of one year or more immediately prior to the filing of the petition for adoption, the parent, without justifiable cause, has significantly failed: (1) to communicate or to make a bona fide attempt to communicate with that child in a meaningful, supportive, parental manner; or (2) to provide for the care and support of that child as required by law or judicial decree.  O.C.G.A. § 19-8-10(b).

Most often, a stepparent adoption occurs after the biological parent voluntarily surrenders his or her rights to the child to the stepparent for the purpose of enabling the stepparent adoption.   In the Hafer v. Lowry case, however, the natural father did not voluntarily surrender the child, and he filed an objection when the stepfather petitioned to adopt the child.  At the court hearing, the judge cut the case short after hearing some testimony from the biological father, stating he had heard enough and was ready to make a decision.  The biological father’s attorney objected; he said he had additional witnesses and evidence to present for the court’s consideration.  The judge disregarded the objection and ruled in favor of the stepparent adoption, terminating the biological father’s parental rights.

On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals overturned the trial judge’s decision.  The Court’s reasoning was that the burden is on the petitioner stepparent to prove, by clear and convincing evidence,  that terminating the biological father’s rights is warranted.  O.C.G.A. § 19-8-10(c) says the biological parent has to be served with a copy of the petition and may appear in court to show why the parent’s rights to the child should not be terminated.  The biological father in Hafer v. Lowry had been served with a copy of the stepparent adoption petition, had filed an objection, and showed up at the court hearing to make his case.   The Court of Appeals decided that when the judge prematurely cut the biological father off in presenting his case, the judge violated the principle that adoption laws must be strictly construed in favor of natural parents.  The trial judge denied the natural father the right to a meaningful opportunity to be heard, and thereby violated the father’s due process rights.  The court of appeals overruled the trial judge and sent the case back to the trial court to conduct a meaningful hearing.

Does this decision mean that the stepfather will not be successful in adopting the child?  Not necessarily.  The Court of Appeals in ruling for the biological father simply required that the trial judge conduct a meaningful hearing and consider the father’s witnesses and evidence in deciding whether or not to terminate the biological father’s parental rights.

Hindson & Melton LLC handles stepparent adoption cases and can help you evaluate whether a Georgia stepparent adoption might be appropriate in your situation.

© Karen Hindson, Hindson & Melton LLC