Opinions, June 23, 2016: Termination, MSAs, & Statutory Interpretation

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals released its published opinion in In re Barre Morris, No. 14-16-00227-CV this morning, denying a writ of mandamus and addressing the question of whether In re Lee applies to termination suits.

In 2004, the trial court named Relator and the child’s mother JMCs. In 2014, the child’s mother signed an affidavit called “Mother’s Affidavit of Voluntary Relinquishment of Parental Rights” in which she stated termination of her parent-child relationship was in the child’s best interest but apparently provided no facts that supported that conclusion and also failed to affirmatively state that she waived and relinquished her parental rights.

In January 2015, Relator filed an “Original Petition to Terminate Parent-Child Relationship,” seeking an order terminating the mother’s parent-child relationship. The only ground alleged was the affidavit, which was attached as an exhibit to the petition. In April 2015, the parents attended mediation and signed an MSA which stated “the terms of settlement are to enter the order of termination as attached as Exhibit A.” The proposed order stated that the parent-child relationship was terminated. In neither the MSA nor the proposed order did the mother agree that termination was in the best interest of the child.

Relator filed the MSA with the court and attended a hearing to prove it up and ask the court to render judgment on the MSA. The only evidence offered at the hearing were the Relator’s name, the child’s name, the mother’s name, the execution of the MSA by the parents and Relator’s request that the trial court enforce the MSA. Relator did not offer testimony that termination of the mother’s parent-child relationship would be in the child’s best interest. The trial court took the matter under advisement and eventually signed an order denying rendition of judgment on the MSA on the grounds that the MSA did not comply with the statutory requirements for termination. Relator filed a petition for writ of mandamus.

The Court of Appeals found the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding the MSA did not comply with Chapter 161 of the Texas Family Code. Section 161.001 provides that the trial court may order termination of the parent-child relationship if it finds, by clear and convincing evidence 1) the parent has executed an irrevocable affidavit of relinquishment of parental rights; and 2) termination is in the best interest of the child.

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals has recognized that an affidavit of relinquishment suffices as evidence on which the trial court may make a finding that termination is in the best interest of the child, but it has not held that an affidavit of relinquishment requires the trial court to find that termination is in the BIC.

The only evidence offered by Relator was the MSA and the affidavit, but the affidavit included no facts to support the conclusion that termination was in the BIC. There was no testimony by Relator that termination was in the BIC. The trial court could have reasonably concluded Relator had not met his burden under the statute.

The Court of Appeals went on to address whether Tex. Fam. Code §153.0071(e), which normally requires the trial court to enter judgment on a statutorily-compliant MSA, applies to suits to terminate a parent-child relationship under Chapter 161. In other words, does In re Lee have any bearing on this matter?  The Court found that §161.001 requires the trial court to make a determination by clear and convincing evidence that the termination would be in the best interest of the child and, as such, it requires the trial court to make a determination independent of the agreement of the parties. For this reason, the Court said, §161.001 conflicts with §153.0071(e), the latter of which does not state that it applies to all suits affecting the parent-child relationship.

The Court of Appeals also noted other fundamental differences between Chapter 153 modification and Chapter 161 termination, including the fact that the termination of parental rights impacts not just the interests of the parent but also the fundamental liberty interests of the child, as a child is typically not a party to a modification MSA but, in a termination proceeding, is frequently represented by counsel. Further, a termination of parental rights is final, unlike a modification, which can be yet further modified. The petition for writ of mandamus was denied.

 

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