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Supreme Court: Cash kept in box not enough to require father’s consent to adoption

A biological father who squirreled away money for his daughter by making regular cash deposits into a lockbox he kept at his residence had not done enough to show that he had made reasonable provisions for the child’s support, and so his consent was not required for the girl’s adoption, a divided North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.

The child was conceived in 2012 when the father, Venson Westgate, and the mother, Brandi Wood, were living in Illinois. Wood subsequently moved to North Carolina with her new husband, and during the pregnancy rebuffed all offers of support from Westgate. Wood gave birth to the child in 2013 and promptly put her up for adoption.

Westgate objected to the adoption, and at a 2014 hearing testified that after Wood refused to accept his offers of support, he began withdrawing $100 or more in cash per month and putting it into the box, which he said he did to ensure that the funds for his daughter were kept separate from his own funds. By the time of the hearing, the box held $3,260.

Wake County District Court Judge Debra Sasser ruled in Westgate’s favor, finding that the lockbox deposits were a reasonable and legally sufficient method of providing support for the child.

The adoptive parents appealed the ruling, and in 2016 the state’s Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed, finding that despite the absence of a paper trail or corroborating witnesses, Westgate’s testimony provided sufficient evidence to support the court’s ruling. The Supreme Court granted a petition for discretionary review.

Harrell

Harrell

Lock, box, and too little evidence

Under state law, a putative father’s consent is needed for adoption only if he has, among other things, provided reasonable support for the mother or child, consistent with his means. This must be actual support — mere offers of support don’t suffice. The Supreme Court had previously held that if a birth mother refuses support, a putative father could satisfy his obligation by creating a bank or trust account in the child’s name, but it had never considered the sort of higgledy-piggledy method of saving Westgate had used.

In a 4-3 opinion handed down May 11, the court ruled that such informal savings did not meet the law’s requirements. Justice Paul Newby, writing for the court, said that the law requires putative fathers to provide support before the adoption petition is filed, and that putative fathers have the burden of providing compliance with the statute. He said that without corroboration, Westgate’s testimony was insufficient, as a matter of law, to establish that he made payments before the statutory deadline.

“Neither respondent’s general bank statements nor the lump sum presented at trial in April 2014 provides an objectively verifiable record showing that he consistently made reasonable payments within the statutorily relevant time period,” Newby wrote. “Because respondent presented no objectively verifiable, independent record to demonstrate his compliance with the statute, the trial court erred as a matter of law in concluding that respondent was required to consent to the adoption.”

Justice Cheri Beasley wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Robin Hudson and Mike Morgan. Beasley said that the trial court had made extensive findings of facts, based on competent evidence, to support its legal conclusion, and that the justices were obliged to defer to those findings rather than reweighing the evidence.

“The majority’s decision — reading into the statute additional requirements of record-keeping or formal accounting — is simply not supported by statute or case law,” Beasley wrote.

Hang on to those receipts

Mike Harrell of Manning Fulton in Raleigh represented the adoptive parents. Harrell said that had the decision gone the other way, it would have eviscerated the provision of the statute outlining a putative father’s obligations to provide material support.

“The decision reiterates to the trial courts that whatever emotional tug-of-war may be going on in terms of the respective positions of the parties, determining whether the payment prong has been satisfied is to be done with as objective of a test as possible,” Harrell said.

Harrell added that the decision makes it clear that putative fathers who wish to challenge an adoption proceeding need to document the amounts that they claim they’ve saved as assiduously as possible before stepping into a courtroom — something that he said Westgate failed to do in this case.

An attorney for Westgate, Travis Taylor of Marshall & Taylor in Raleigh, said he was surprised by the ruling. He said that Sasser made detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law in her order, and that because trial court judges are in the best position to weigh the credibility of any evidence, those findings should have been afforded great deference.

“I think Mr. Westgate did everything he could possibly do, and Judge Sasser found that as fact,” Taylor said. “I think that putative fathers have an uphill battle, and it was just made more difficult by this decision.”

The 36-page decision is In re Adoption of C.H.M. (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-040-18). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan

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