How to Terminate Parental Rights in Texas

By Teo Spengler

Updated October 29, 2018

Mother taking her daughter to school


Most parents love their kids and do a decent job nurturing and protecting them. But some don't. Parents may be unable to care for their children because of mental health issues, addiction or even medical conditions. Others are homeless or destitute and cannot meet the financial requirements of caring for a child. Still others abuse their children or are unavailable to look after them because they are in prison or committed to some other institution.

In Texas, if a parent cannot or will not participate in looking after minor children and ensuring their safety, their parental rights can be terminated involuntarily. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services is charged with protecting children from abuse, neglect and exploitation in the state, and the agency can file for termination of parental rights. Parental rights can also be involuntarily terminated on the other parent's legal motion if it is shown to be in the best interests of the child. In addition, a parent can voluntarily give up his parental rights in order to permit an adoption to take place.

Parental Rights in Texas

Texas recognizes in its laws the importance of the parent-child bond. This is why Texas courts have repeatedly ruled that the rights of parents to oversee their kids is a fundamental one. In fact, Texas Family Code Section 151.003 provides that "a state agency may not adopt rules or policies or take any other action that violates the fundamental rights and duty of parents to direct the upbringing of the parent's child."

Any potential violation of that right is weighed by the courts under the strict scrutiny standard. That means that a law that seems to get in the way of parental rights will only be upheld by the court if it is narrowly written and serves a compelling governmental interest.

Parental rights include the authority to make all important decisions for a child. This authority ranges from the right to determine where a child lives to selecting the school the child attends and the child's religious affiliation while she is a minor. Parents can choose child care providers, determine a child's leisure or sports activities, evaluate and make decisions about her medical care, generally make rules and supervise her entire upbringing.

How to Terminate Parental Rights in Texas

Parental rights in Texas are not absolute and can be terminated. If you are wondering how to terminate parental rights in Texas, the procedure must be done through the courts. It can be involuntary or voluntary and, in a few circumstances, by operation law.

It's hard for someone with kids to understand why you'd want to terminate parental rights, but in fact the possible reasons are many and varied. In some cases, an unmarried parent doesn't assert his rights soon enough and waives them by inaction. In others, the state or the other parent can ask the court to terminate parental rights with certain evidence. And a termination of parental rights must be accomplished in every case before a child can be adopted in Texas.

A parent can also ask the court to terminate his own rights. When the process of termination is voluntary, courts usually call it a relinquishment of parental rights. This can happen when someone who was deemed to be the biological father is found by paternity testing not to be related to the child.

The termination of parental rights in Texas is nothing to play around with. It is a court order severing the parent-child relationship, and that lasts forever.

When Does the DFPS Seek Termination of Parental Rights

The Department of Family and Protective Services recognizes that termination of parental rights is an extremely serious matter. The agency only has authority to seek termination if it finds that it is in the best interest of the child and establishes one or more of the statutory reasons for termination.

What are the grounds for termination of parental rights? The most common grounds involve the safety of the child. The number one reason for termination of parental rights in Texas is when a parent exposes the child to behavior or to an environment that puts the physical or emotional well-being of the child in danger. The type of behavior that endangers the child ranges from substance abuse and criminal acts to mental illness and failing to give a child basic needs like food, clothing and medical attention. Exposing a child to sexual predators is also considered endangerment, as are many other statutory grounds for termination.

Abandonment is one ground for abandonment. Whether abandonment is sufficient, however, depends on where the child is left, how long the parent is gone, the parent's message as he was leaving, whether the mother is pregnant when the father leaves and whether the departing parent provides financial assistance for the child when he is gone. And a parent who has a child in foster care, but doesn't keep in touch or work toward getting a stable home for the child, can be found to have constructively abandoned her.

Other grounds for termination of parental rights by the state include having the means to provide for the child financially, but deliberately failing to do so. The parent must continue this behavior for at least one year for this to qualify as termination of rights.

Can a Mother Terminate a Father's Parental Rights?

One parent can ask the court to terminate the other's parental rights, but this is by no means an easy case to make to a judge. And it's an expensive endeavor. The parent seeking to have the other's rights terminated must file a lawsuit and then prove behavior that is legal grounds for termination in Texas, such as endangerment or drug use. You must also establish to the court's satisfaction that the termination is in the best interest of the child.

Often, however, a mother brings the termination case because, after a divorce order giving the father visitation rights and an obligation to pay child support, the father disappears. He doesn't pay support and he doesn't keep in touch with the child. At some point, this may be considered abandonment, but it seems to serve little purpose to have his rights terminated.

And it may not be in the best interests of the child, since termination of parental rights usually terminates all obligation to pay future child support. Even if the father is not meeting his child support obligation now, he may in the future. And even if the mother can support the child on her wages now, what if she loses her job or becomes disabled? The court is less likely to grant a termination because the father has dropped out of active contact with the child than if he creates a situation that endangers the child.

Can a Father Give Up His Rights in Texas?

Under Texas law, a parent can voluntarily relinquish his parental rights, but that is the beginning, not the end, of the court's inquiry. If a father files a relinquishment of rights voluntarily, the court must be convinced that he does so with a full understanding of the consequences that follows. This must be part of the written statement provided to the court signed by the father, and it must follow statutory formalities. If this type of relinquishment of parental rights is presented, it can serve as a ground for termination of parental rights. However, the parent still must prove that the relinquishment is in the best interest of the child.

The determination of the child’s best interest is a separate, stand-alone consideration that the court must take into account, including the emotional consequences of a termination. A parent seeking voluntary termination of his parental rights has to show that the decision is in the best interest of the child, taking into account her past, present and future needs; the dangers posed to the child now and in the future; the character and parenting abilities of the person seeking custody; the stability of the new home currently proposed for the child; and any negligent acts of any prospective parent. The court is forbidden by law from considering a few specific factors when determining what is in the best interest of the child: Whether the child was home-schooled; whether the child was economically disadvantaged; whether the parent was charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor; whether the parent gave the child low-THC cannabis medically prescribed for the child; or whether the parent declined vaccinations and/or immunizations for the child.

It is absolutely prohibited in Texas for DFPS caseworkers to try to talk a father or a mother into relinquishment of parental rights. A parent must be left to make that decision on his own – any fraud, duress or coercion will void the relinquishment. A caseworker cannot agree to the custodial placement the parent prefers, such as with a grandparent, in exchange for the parent’s relinquishment of parental rights. Nor can a caseworker "trade" the return of one child in exchange for the relinquishment of parental rights to another child. A parent cannot be asked to sign a relinquishment of parental rights that may be used in the future in case he doesn't do what he has said he would do in relation to the child.

Delayed Paternity Registry

Another grounds for terminating parental rights of an alleged father is set out in the Texas system of paternity registry. In this state, the biological father of a child who is not married to the child’s mother is legally obligated to put his name on a Paternity Registry. He has to do this within 31 days of the day the child was born. Otherwise, the state can involuntarily terminate his parental rights.

Any father who fails to register paternity loses his rights as the father of the child, and this can happen even if he is living with the child's mother and supporting the family. If he fails to register, the state doesn't even have to tell the father that his rights are legally terminated or if the child is adopted.

Can You Sign Your Rights Away and Not Pay Child Support?

So, can a father sign his parental rights away and not pay child support? It's easy to imagine this scenario: An unwed father doesn't want to pay child support, so he signs a relinquishment of parental rights or simply fails to register on the Paternity Registry. Bingo, no more child support obligation.

And, in fact, this used to happen occasionally in Texas some years ago. However, the fact is that parental rights are not terminated without a court decree, and the courts consider the reason a father is signing the relinquishment. A desire to avoid paying child support is unlikely to support a court order, and it is difficult to see how one could convince the court that the best interest of the child would be furthered by such an order.

Today, most courts in Texas will not approve termination of parental rights on the basis of a relinquishment unless another person is stepping up to adopt the child. And note that even if a court does approve a relinquishment, that only removes the obligation to pay future child support. It does not extinguish child support arrears.