Back in the late 1990s, I was following a case that went (pseudonymously) like this: John and Jane were married for 16 years. They had three children aged 15, 12 and 6.
When they got divorced, John asked the court to authorize genetic testing of the children and his request was granted. Genetic testing revealed that the oldest and youngest children had been fathered by men other than John.
One of those men was Eric who received a call late one night from Jane informing him that he was the father of her oldest child, that he would be paying child support for the boy in the future and that he would need to come up with a hefty lump sum of past child support for the lad.
Needless to say, Eric’s new wife wasn’t terribly pleased with this news. Neither was Eric who had started a new business that he had to shutter. The lump sum child support obligation was too much for him to afford and so he had to seek refuge in bankruptcy proceedings.
There was an ever-so-tiny silver lining to all those clouds, though; after 15 years, Eric was given parental rights to a teenager he’d never met and who had little-to-no interest in him. In short, he got to visit with the young man he was helping to support every other weekend.
Apart from the shock and outrage experienced by Eric and John who learned that he’d been supporting another man’s child, there was a lesson to be learned from the case; parental rights and parental obligations go hand in hand.
Eric had no claim to parental rights except through his DNA. As I said before, he’d never set eyes on his son before John and Jane’s divorce case when the boy was 15. But as soon as it was revealed that he was the biological father, his parental duties came into being. And when his duties came into being, so did his rights – poof! out of thin air.
It was a strange case, but the concept that there can be no responsibilities without rights made a certain sense.
That was in Texas. This is in Michigan.
On December 20th, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that a father whose parental rights have been terminated can still be required to pay child support for the child, parental rights to whom were removed by court order. It was a unanimous decision.
The court quite clearly stated that parental rights and duties in Michigan are separate; the existence of one has nothing whatever to do with the existence of the other.
Lawrence Beck and his wife had a child who was removed from their care due to their persistent drug usage. Both parents were ordered to pay child support, which they did. The mother apparently went through drug rehabilitation and took parenting classes and, having completed same, reacquired custody of the child.
Beck did none of that and had his parental rights terminated, but the court that terminated his rights refused to terminate his duty of support. He appealed the order and the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court ruled against him.
And so it is now the law of the State of Michigan that a parent can be stripped of all parental rights and still be required to pay support.
The term “parents’ is defined in the act as the “natural parents, if married prior or subsequent to the minor”s birth; adopting parents, if the minor has been legally adopted, or the mother, if the minor is illegitimate.’
(I may as well note in passing that, alone among all the possibilities, unmarried fathers are not considered parents by the State of Michigan. Unmarried mothers are; unmarried fathers are not.)
The court went on,
Because the parental rights identified in MCL 722.2 are distinct and detached from the parental duty identified in MCL 722.3, it is clear that the Legislature has determined that parental rights are independent from parental duties. Nothing in either MCL 722.2 or MCL 722.3 evinces any legislative intent that either statutory provision is connected to or
conditioned on the other. There is no indication that the duty of support is conditioned on the retention of parental rights, just as there is no indication that the exercise of parental rights is conditioned on fulfilling the parental obligation to support.
Now, the court’s opinion can be read as a plea to the legislature to amend its statutes so that parental rights and duties are co-dependent. After all, read literally (and the opinion is not ambiguous) the court has opened the door to adoptive parents in the State of Michigan to sue for support the biological parents of the children they adopted. Like Lawrence Beck, they have had their rights terminated, but according to the court, that affects their obligation of support not at all.
‘Tis a tangled web indeed.