In California, the Family Court System is designed to encourage parties to settle disputes and reach agreements regarding contested issues. Specifically in Del Mar and throughout San Diego County parties are required to attend a Mandatory Settlement Conference before their case can proceed to trial. However, despite this strong public policy towards settlement, the California Court of Appeal has clearly drawn a line between what parties can and cannot agree to.
In this Court of Appeal case, Mother (Kristine) first filed a petition at the trial court level to establish a parental relationship between her son, Seth, and his biological father. Since the parties were not married at the time of conception or birth, there was no presumption that Father (David) was in fact Seth's father. Once the court determined, through the use of a paternity test, that David was Seth's biological father, the parties entered into a stipulation. A stipulation is an agreement that can be filed with the court and creates enforceable orders. Kristine and David stipulated that David consented to terminate all of his parental rights and Kristine agreed to waive any claim for future child support. In short, the parties agreed to terminate David's parental rights and responsibilities.
Over the objection of Minor's counsel, the trial court was persuaded by the parties' argument that they had the right and ability to contract regarding their respective parental rights. David argued that proceedings to terminate parental rights are not necessarily linked to a pending or contemplated adoption therefore he should not be prohibited from terminating his on the basis that Seth would only be left with one parent. The trial court was also persuaded in part by case law in which the court upheld agreements made by parents prior to conception of a child such as in artificial insemination and surrogacy cases.
Ultimately, on appeal, the trial court's decision was overturned. Although the Court of Appeal agreed that the parties had a compelling interest in deciding how parental rights should be allocated post-birth, it ruled against them. The Court based their ruling on the child's best interest. Because the establishment of the parent-child relationship is the most fundamental right a child possesses, the Court viewed a voluntary termination of parental rights (absent exigent circumstances) as equivalent to depriving the child of a basic constitutional right. The Court held the position that a waiver of parental rights is only an agreement of convenience for the parties and does not consider the best interests of the child. Here, Kristine would not be inconvenienced if David ever changed his mind and wanted to be a part of Seth's life and David would not be inconvenienced if Kristine changed her mind and sought child support. Thus, as evidenced by this decision, the best interest of the child is a powerful standard that trumps the parties' ability to make agreements regarding parental rights.
Please contact us if you are considering a divorce from your spouse, a legal separation, or have questions regarding custody and/or paternity. San Diego Family Law Attorney Nancy J. Bickford iis the only attorney in San Diego County representing clients in divorces, who is a Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) and who is actively licensed as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Don't settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.