New Court Ruling Regarding Grandparents, Adoption, and Termination of Parental Rights

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently issued an opinion in the case of In re: Adoption of M.R.D. and T.M.D. (26 MAP 2016, August 29, 2016). In this case, the Court considered “whether, in order to facilitate the termination of a biological father’s parental rights, a grandfather may adopt his grandchildren with the children’s mother – his daughter.”

The background of the case is informative. Mother met Father in South Dakota in 2002. Mother moved back to Pennsylvania in 2004. Father moved to Pennsylvania for a brief time as well, however, he ultimately returned to South Dakota and the relationship broke up. Shortly thereafter, Mother found out that she was pregnant with twins. Father was not involved in the pregnancy and had minimal contact with the children for a few months after their birth. After 2007, the children had no contact with Father.

Mother’s father, the children’s Maternal Grandfather, stepped in and assumed a parental role to the children. The lower court’s opinion indicated that Grandfather and Mother co-parented the children and that Grandfather’s “authority, control and influence over the children is equal to Mother.” Grandfather attended school functions, doctor appointments, helped with homework, went on vacations and provided financial support.

Father filed for custody of the children in December 2012. In January 2013, Mother filed a Petition for Involuntary Termination of Rights and Adoption. The petition requested that Father’s parental rights be terminated and that Grandfather be permitted to adopt the children and co-parent with Mother. According to statute, termination of parental rights filed by one parent against another parent must occur in the context of an adoption. Further, generally speaking, the parent seeking termination must also provide consent and give up his or her parental rights in order for a new parent-child relationship to be established with the adoptive parent. There are exceptions, however, for example, when the petitioning parent does not want to give up their rights.  One other exception to this rule is when a step-parent is petitioning to adopt a step-child.  In that situation, there is no termination of rights for the parent that is married to the step-parent. The exception allows for the court to still order termination for “cause shown.” Mother and Grandfather argued that the court could allow the adoption under this exception because Grandfather was already in a parent-child relationship with the children. Father objected, arguing that the exception is only available for step-parent adoptions and adoptions by same sex couples.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the lower court’s decision and Father’s petition for allocatur to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was granted. The Supreme Court held that Mother and Grandfather had not met the requirements to proceed with the adoption. Specifically, Mother and Grandfather are not part of an intact family unit and will not live as one after the adoption, as Grandfather intended to remain married to, and residing with, Maternal Grandmother. The Court was also sensitive to the “confusing hybrid relationships” that would be created in the family if the adoption proceeded. For example, Mother would be the children’s mother and also their step-sister; Grandmother would be both Grandmother and Step-Mother and Grandfather would also be the children’s father. Finally, the Court was persuaded that allowing this adoption to proceed could “open the door for misuse of adoption proceedings by spiteful parents as a means to involuntarily terminate the rights of unwanted parents.”

If you have questions about adoptions, termination of parental rights or grandparent custody laws, click or call (610) 892-3877


About the author

About Melissa Towsey

Melissa graduated from the University of Virginia in 2002 with a double major in Sociology and Foreign Affairs. After working for several years as a paralegal in Washington, D.C., she attended The University of Villanova School of Law and graduated in 2010. During law school, Melissa was involved in several public interest organizations and published an article in Villanova’s Environmental Law Journal, “Something Stinks: The Need for Environmental Regulation of Puppy Mills” 21 Vill. Envtl. L.J. 159 (2010) After law school, Melissa clerked for the Honorable Thomas G. Parisi, Administrative Judge of the Criminal Division in the Court of Common Pleas, Berks County. Melissa is the supervising attorney of the firm’s Appellate Unit. The Appellate Unit handles all aspects of the appellate process for family law cases as well as advanced research within the firm. Melissa and her husband, Paul, reside in Montgomery County with their two cats Wembley and Gobo. In her spare time, she enjoys audiobooks, barbeques, and watching action movies.