In order to finalize the adoption of a child in Texas, the adoptive parent (or parents) need to terminate the rights of the child’s living biological parents (or other persons named legally responsible for a child, like a managing conservator or guardian). The only exceptions include adult adoptions and stepparent adoptions, where the stepparent’s spouse maintains parental rights and the other biological parent’s rights need to be terminated.
TPR basics: What is TPR in court and how does the process work?
In the family court system, TPR refers to the legal termination of parental rights. Once a parent’s parental rights are terminated, they have no say regarding the child’s upbringing, access to the child or claim to the child or the child’s assets in any way. For all intents and purposes, that parent is permanently “dead” to the child.
So, how does the termination of parental rights (TPR) process work, what is a TPR hearing and how long does adoption take after TPR?
The process involved and time it takes to terminate someone’s parental rights depends on a number of factors. One of the biggest factors is whether the relinquishment of parental rights is contested or not. Cases where a biological parent voluntarily agrees to relinquish their parental rights tend to move along more quickly than cases where relinquishment is contested. This frequently occurs in cases involving Child Protective Services and foster care cases, where a parent has essentially abandoned or is unable to properly care for a child.
In addition, just because a parent voluntarily agrees to relinquish parental rights, or makes a request to terminate his or her parental rights, doesn’t mean the court will automatically agree to do so. The court’s primary concern is doing what is in the best interest of the child. In the state of Texas, there is a presumption that having a relationship with both parents is in a child’s best interest.
The court may also find a biological parent should still be financially responsible for a child and pay child support, even if no relationship exists between that parent and their biological child.
That being said, if the court finds there are grounds to voluntarily OR involuntarily terminate the parental rights of a biological parent, as set forth in Texas Family Code Sec. 161.001, they may agree to terminate that parent’s rights. It is important to note that the only way to terminate someone’s parental rights in Texas is through a court order. In Texas, you cannot terminate parental rights by agreement.
How does the TPR process work in Texas?
If you want to adopt a child and need to terminate one or both of the biological parents’ parental rights, we highly recommend you hire a family law attorney to guide you through the process. Terminating parental rights takes time and must be done in accordance with specific laws and timelines as defined in the Texas Family Code. TPR cases are truly some of the most challenging family law cases that occur in the Texas family courts.
A family law attorney with experience handling TPR cases can answer questions, such as:
- When should I file for termination of parental rights for a TPR adoption?
- What happens after TPR is filed?
- What is your strategy regarding how to win a TPR trial?
- What happens at a termination of parental rights hearing?
- What is TPR in foster care?
- Other questions specific to your TPR case.
In the meantime, we’ll provide some general insight here to give you the gist of what to expect if you’re involved in a termination of parental rights case. For starters, let’s look at how the TPR schedule and process works in an uncontested termination of parental rights case or TPR adoption case.
What an uncontested TPR schedule generally looks like in Texas
Voluntary relinquishment paperwork executed. The process generally starts with a formal petition filed by the party requesting termination of his or her own rights or requesting termination of the other parent’s rights. Upon acceptance of the filed petition, the biological parent or parents will execute an Affidavit of Voluntary Relinquishment indicating consent to terminate his or her rights to be filed with the court.
The party or parties would then need to sign a waiver of service for the voluntary relinquishment OR they would need to be personally served with the relinquishment paperwork, sign off and return the signed paperwork to the prospective adoptive parents (or other biological parent in a stepparent adoption) and/or their attorney.
Typically, the judge will require that there is someone who can “step into the shoes” of the parent terminating his or her rights, as public policy presumes that having two parents is in the child’s best interest. The attorney can then file the necessary paperwork with the court in the county where the case will be decided. This step in the process takes about two months to complete on average.
Home study begins. People often ask us, “What happens after TPR is filed?” In most TPR adoption cases (private adoption, stepparent adoption, foster care adoption, etc.), the court will order a home study be performed to ensure the adoptive parents can provide a safe, healthy home environment, as well as the financial, emotional and physical support the child needs.
It generally takes about four to six months to wrap up a home study but it can take longer. It all depends on the availability of the evaluator appointed by the court to perform the home study, how backlogged the courts are at that time and the adoptive parent’s ability to pay for the home study. We have had cases take a year or longer. Sometimes it can be difficult to get timely feedback from the parties performing home studies and other hurdles can pop up.
It’s important for prospective parents to be patient, watch for correspondence from their attorneys and follow up from time to time with their lawyers to make sure the home study is on track. Reputable TPR attorneys will also be proactive about keeping their clients up to date on the status of their cases.
Prove up of case and orders drafted. Once the home study is completed and the findings are submitted to the court, a TPR hearing can be scheduled where prospective adoptive parents appear before the court to provide evidence and testimony to prove up their case. The adoptive parents’ attorney will draft orders to terminate parental rights prior to the hearing, so the judge can approve and execute the orders the same day as the prove-up hearing.
If the court finds that everything is in order—relinquishment paperwork properly filed, waiver of service filed if applicable, among other details—the judge can sign off on the TPR orders.
Finalization of adoption. Many people ask us, “How long does adoption take after TPR is finalized?” When possible, we like to finalize the adoption during the same hearing. It doesn’t always work out like that, but it’s a beautiful way to conclude a case when it happens. Ideally, our firm likes to prepare the TPR and adoption paperwork in tandem, so we can finalize both matters during the same hearing.
If the judge finds the home study confirms the party or parties meet the requirements to adopt and other pertinent paperwork and details are in order, they will sign off on the adoption at that time.
What happens at a termination of parental rights hearing if the case is contested?
Technically speaking, you don’t generally have a termination of parental rights hearing in a contested case. You have a trial on the issue because it is contested, and the participants will have a say as to whether the trial takes place before a judge or a jury. If you do go to trial for a contested termination, both sides will be able to provide testimony, along with evidence to support their claims.
We often see this scenario play out in stepparent adoption cases, where you have one parent trying to terminate the parental rights of a biological parent who has been absent or tiptoeing in and out of his or her child’s life. While on the other hand, you have a stepparent who loves the child and has been a consistent and positive influence on the child for years.
The courts will still fall back on the presumption of best interest and the belief that children benefit from having both biological parents in their lives. Even when you get to the actual trial and show the party’s failings as a parent over the years, along with the timeline of events that have occurred (or the lack thereof), it’s still very challenging for the court to say, “Your rights are terminated.”
However, it isn’t unusual for the courts to put protective measures in place that give the biological parent a chance to rehabilitate. If the court gives that parent those options, we often find they give the parent that “rope” to see if they will hang themselves with it before they take the extreme step of terminating parental rights.
What other steps can you take when TPR is contested?
Clients often ask us what we recommend regarding how to win a TPR trial, but I always caution parents and prospective adoptive parents to brace themselves when termination is contested. If you’ve filed to terminate a parent’s parental rights, and they contest it, the first step you should take is to accept the fact that you’re facing an uphill battle. It’s really important to be realistic about the challenges ahead, not to mention the financial resources parents need on hand to fight a contentious termination battle.
The second step is to be proactive about putting temporary orders in place to strictly limit access to the child while the case is pending. You don’t want to end up in a situation where the other parent has been out of the child’s life for years, you serve them with termination adoption papers, which puts a burr in their saddle prodding them to be involved, only for them to tiptoe in and out of the relationship.
The third step is to be prepared to take your case to court. Having an experienced child custody attorney by your side who understands the complexities of TPR cases is critical. Your paperwork must be in order and any evidence you provide to support the request for termination should be strong enough to overcome the presumption of best interest discussed above.
Finally, the fourth step is to consider the other options available to you if termination isn’t granted. Your attorney can explain those options, such as establishing modified conservatorship relationships, like a third-party conservatorship. You can also ask the court to put financial obligations in place, grant limited or no access to the child and/or require that parent to overcome certain hurdles in order to get access. That way if they don’t step up and comply, they don’t get access.
Don’t face termination of parental rights issues alone
I can’t emphasize strongly enough how difficult it is to terminate parental rights in the state of Texas, especially if you don’t have qualified legal representation. If you live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area and have questions about the termination of parental rights, what happens at a termination of parental rights hearing or how to get sole custody in Texas, we can help.
To schedule a confidential case review with a family law attorney at the Sisemore Law Firm, we invite you to call the firm at (817) 335-4444 or schedule an appointment online.
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