In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court today affirmed the Court of Appeals’ determination that a father willfully failed to visit his three children and is subject to termination of his parental rights.
The mother and stepfather of the children sought to terminate the father’s parental rights on the grounds of abandonment based on willful failure to visit the children and willful failure to pay child support.
The trial court determined that the father’s parental rights should not be terminated because his child support payments were sufficient in light of his economic situation and he was not able to visit the children due to the court’s order suspending visitation. The Court of Appeals disagreed and terminated the father’s parental rights on both grounds. The Court of Appeals returned the case to the trial court to determine whether the termination was in the best interests of the children, as required by statute.
The Supreme Court upheld the termination only on the ground of willful failure to visit the children. The Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the father willfully failed to visit his children because he had made no effort to see his children or to reinstate visitation in the three years prior to the petition to terminate parental rights.
The Court held that the mother and stepfather failed to prove that the father willfully failed to pay child support. The father’s payment of $3,500 of his $10,336 child support obligation during the four months prior to the filing of the petition to terminate parental rights was not mere ‘token’ support. Because only one ground for termination of parental rights is required by statute, the Court retruned the case to the trial court to consider whether termination of father’s parental rights is in the best interests of the children.