Termination of Parental Rights in Georgia

Learn when Georgia courts may terminate a parent's rights, how (and why) to surrender parental rights voluntarily, and the consequences of these actions.

By , Retired Judge
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Georgia, like every other state, strongly favors keeping the parent-child relationship intact. Severing that connection is a drastic step—one the state takes very seriously. That's why the law sets out specific reasons and a rigorous process for terminating a parent's rights.

When Can a Parent's Rights Be Terminated in Georgia?

Typically, the Georgia Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS) will seek to terminate parental rights after a judge has found that the child is a "dependent" of the court based on a parent's failure to provide proper "care or control," and the DFCS hasn't been able to return the child safely to the parent because:

  • "reunification" efforts to remedy the problems weren't successful or weren't legally required (such as when a parent is guilty of sexual abuse or certain other serious crimes)
  • the reason for the dependency is likely to continue, and
  • returning the child to the parent or even continuing the parent-child relationship will likely cause serious harm to the child.

Parental rights may also be terminated in other circumstances, including when a parent has:

  • voluntarily surrendered the child for adoption (more on that below) or consented to the termination of parental rights
  • "wantonly and willfully" failed to pay court-ordered child support for at least a year, without a good reason
  • abandoned the child, or
  • subjected the child to "aggravated circumstances" (such as serious abuse or failing to protect the child from others).

(Ga. Code § 15-11-310(a) (2023).)

Georgia's Procedures and Requirements for Terminating Parental Rights

The process of terminating a parent's rights begins with filing a written petition with the court. Usually, the DFCS will file the petition with the juvenile court. But when the agency or an individual is requesting termination of parental rights as part of an adoption proceeding, the petition should be filed in the superior court.

Notifying Others About the Termination Proceeding

Whoever files the petition to terminate parental rights must also serve everyone who has an interest in the proceedings (such as the child's mother, legal father, guardian, or legal custodian) with a summons (legal notice) and copy of the petition.

A child who's 14 years of age or older must also receive a copy. (Ga. Code §§ 15-11-281, 15-11-282 (2023).)

The Rights of Biological Fathers in Termination Proceedings

A petition to terminate parental rights must be served on any man who's identified as the child's biological father (but isn't a legal father), including a man who has:

  • registered on Georgia's putative father registry and at least indicated that he might be the biological father, or
  • taken certain father-like responsibilities, such as living with the child, contributing to the child's support, or providing the mother with support during her pregnancy or birth.

The notice will inform the biological father that he may lose all rights to the child unless, within 30 days, he files a petition to "legitimate" the child in Georgia and files notice of that petition in the court handling the termination of parental rights. (Ga. Code § 15-11-283 (2023).)

How Do Judges Decide Whether to Terminate Parental Rights?

When judges are considerating a request to terminate parental rights, they must first determine if one of the legal grounds (discussed above) exist. Then, they must decide whether it would be in the child's best interests to terminate the parent's rights. When making that decision, judges must consider any relevant factors, including:

  • the child's attachment to the parent, including a sense of security, familiarity, and continuing affection
  • the child's need for stability and ongoing relationships with a parent, siblings, and other relatives
  • the child's wishes and long-term goals
  • the child's future physical, mental, moral, or emotional well-being, and
  • the potential benefits for the child of becoming part of a stable and permanent home, as well as the harmful effects of having that outcome prevented or delayed.

The judge will presume that termination of parental rights is in the child's best interests if the parent murdered the child's other parent. (Ga. Code § 15-11-310 (2023).)

What Are the Effects of a Termination of Parental Rights in Georgia?

Once a judge has terminated a parent's rights, the child is free to be adopted by someone else, and the parent no longer has any legal rights to:

  • make any decisions affecting the child
  • have custody of the child
  • visit or have any contact with the child, or
  • receive notice of an adoption proceeding, object to the adoption, or even particiate in the proceeding.

Until the child is adopted, however, a parent whose rights have been terminated will still have the obligation to support the child financially, and the child may still inherit from the parent. (Ga. Code § 15-11-261 (2023).)

Can Parents Voluntarily Give Up Their Parental Rights in Georgia?

Parents may voluntarily relinquish their parental rights. Usually, a parent will do this before the child is adopted or placed for adoption. (Ga. Code § 19-8-26 (2023).)

This is very serious step. The agency accepting the relinquishment must be convinced that the parent is doing so with full knowledge of the consequences. It must also be clear that the parent isn't impaired or suffering a disability that would diminish the capacity to make a voluntary and informed decision.

Can You Change Your Mind After Relinquishing Parental Rights?

Georgia law gives parents a very short window of time to change their mind and revoke a voluntary surrender of parental rights. Within four days of signing the surrender, the parent must deliver a written notice in person, or send it by registered mail or overnight delivery, to the agency that received the original relinquishment. (Ga. Code § 19-8-9(a) (2023).)

When Can Georgia Judges Reinstate Terminated Parental Rights?

If a child hasn't been adopted within three years after a parent's right have been terminated—or an adoption is unlikely even if it hasn't yet been three years—the child may file a petition to have the parent's rights reinstated. (The parent has no right to make this request.)

Children who are at least 14 years old must sign the petition themselves unless there's a good reason they can't do so.

The judge will dismiss the child's petition if the parent whose rights were terminated can't be located or objects to the reinstatement. Otherwise, the judge will grant the request if clear and convincing evidence shows that the child isn't likely to be adopted, and that reinstatement of parental rights would be in the child's best interests. Among other things, the judge will consider whether the child is mature enough to express a preference, whether the parent is now fit, and whether the reinstatement would pose a risk to a child's health, welfare, or safety. (Ga. Code § 15-11-323 (2023).)

What to Do When Facing an Involuntary Termination of Your Parental Rights

Parents who are facing a proceeding to terminate their parental rights are entitled to have an attorney represent them. Considering the dramatic—and possibly traumatic—consequences of losing your parental rights, take full advantage of the opportunity to have a lawyer represent you and present the kind of evidence needed to convince the judge that you're willing and able to be a fit parent.

When the termination proceeding is in juvenile court, you may have the right to a court-appointed attorney if you can't afford to hire one on your own. Be sure to ask the court about this as soon as you receive notice of the proceeding. (Ga. Code §15-11-262 (2023).)

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