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Domestic Relations – Parent & Child – Termination of Parental Rights – Willful Abandonment – Single Hearing

Domestic Relations – Parent & Child – Termination of Parental Rights – Willful Abandonment – Single Hearing

Even though, in this termination of parental rights proceeding, the trial court conducted the adjudicatory and dispositional phases in one consolidated hearing, the court properly adjudicated the existence of the ground for termination – willful abandonment – before determining whether termination was in the child’s best interests.

We affirm the trial court’s termination of respondent’s parental rights.

The court’s findings establish that the respondent-father willfully chose not to visit “Alexis”; willfully failed to have phone contact with Alexis on a consistent basis; willfully failed to perform the natural and legal parental obligations of care and support for Alexis; willfully withheld his presence, love, care and opportunity to display filial affection towards Alexis; and willfully failed to lend support and maintenance for the minor child despite the ability to do so for a period of at least six months preceding the filing of the petition. Moreover, the findings show that respondent had no contact with Alexis for approximately 15 months and provided no financial support for almost two years before the petition, despite being gainfully employed. These ultimate findings support the trial court’s conclusion of law concerning willful abandonment.

The trial court noted that it made both its adjudicatory and dispositional findings “by clear, cogent and convincing evidence.” This is the correct evidentiary standard for findings of fact made as part of the trial court’s adjudication of grounds for termination. However, when making its best interests determination, the trial court need only make dispositional findings that are supported by competent evidence.

By employing the heightened “clear, cogent and convincing” standard of proof in making its dispositional findings, the trial court misapplied the relevant evidentiary standard. But respondent does not show how he was prejudiced by the use of this higher standard, which benefited him because petitioner had the burden of proof.

Although the trial court combined the adjudicatory and dispositional stages into a single evidentiary hearing, in rendering its judgment from the bench, the court made its findings and conclusion on adjudication before making its findings and conclusion on disposition. Nothing in the hearing transcript or in the written order suggests the trial court did not engage in the statutorily required two-stage process.


In re A.J.A.-D. (Lawyers Weekly No. 012-063-20, 12 pp.) (Richard Dietz, J.) Appealed from Franklin County District Court (John Davis, J.) Deborah Sandlin for petitioner; Kathleen Joyce for respondent; no brief filed for guardian ad litem. N.C. App. Unpub.


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