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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Michigan Supreme Court Affirms Father's Child Support Obligation Even When Parental Rights Terminated

There has been some buzz among family law practitioners this week concerning the Michigan Supreme Court's decision in the DHS vs Beck case.

Earlier this year, we posted on the Michigan Court of Appeals decision that held a father, whose chronic drugging resulted in the complete neglect of his children and termination of his parental rights, nevertheless remained obligated to pay child support for his two children.  The published Court of Appeals decision was just affirmed by the Michigan Supreme Court.

This case arose from the Oakland County Family Court; it was Judge Martha Anderson that initially terminated Mr. Beck's parental rights while also affirming his obligation to pay child support.  Both parents had been abusing drugs so their two children were placed with grandparents.  For her part, the mother  got straight, and otherwise complied with a DHS parenting plan; she now has the children.

The Supreme Court's Beck decision is remarkable in that it is the first decision to be issued by the Court in the current term.  Also, although the decision affirms the holding of the Court of Appeals, it does so on grounds different then those relied on by the intermediate appellate court.

The father in Beck did not appeal the termination of his parental rights; only the family court's ruling that he remained obligated to pay support for his children.  On appeal, the father argued that he was denied due process because he was arbitrarily deprived of his property (i.e. his support payments).  Like the intermediate appellate court, the Supreme Court was not convinced, ruling that the father failed to articulate how, exactly, his due process rights were implicated.

One of the issues to arise in the Beck case was that the parental termination provisions of the Juvenile Code are silent as to the corresponding "parental responsibilities".

The Court analyzed the rights and duties implicated by a family court's decision to terminate parental rights while continuing to obligate support payments.  Michigan common law has long established a minor child's right to support from both parents.  The appellate courts also recognized a parent's right to the "companionship, care, custody and management of his or her children."

In affirming the Court of appeals, the Supreme Court not only separated parental "rights" enumerated in the juvenile code, from the duties set out in the Child Custody Act, it also held that parental rights contained in the Custody Act were distinct and thus independent from the duties created by that same Act.

Of note in the dicta of the Court of Appeal's decision was an express acknowledgment of the current "times of difficult financial circumstances."  The Beck panel realized that in such difficult economic times, public policy is served by not shifting all support and maintenance obligations onto the custodial parent or, in some cases, the state.

This is the right decision.  If getting high is more important to a father than parenting, the rest of us should not have to pick-up the slack for that father and supply public benefits for such a man's children.  He should pay as well, even if he can no longer see his children.

Such are the choices we make in life.

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