In re Adoption of C.H.M., ___ N.C. ___, 812 S.E.2d 804 (2018)

Held: 
Reversed and Remanded
There is a dissent.
  • Facts: Respondent and child’s biological mother were in a relationship that ended in November 2012. In January, 2013, mother marries another man. In February she notifies respondent that she is pregnant with his child but wants it kept a secret. Respondent states he intends to set aside money for the child but doesn’t provide any support or details of his savings plan. Respondent and mother communicate for several months by Facebook message. Mother refuses respondent’s offers of support. In one communication, mother tells respondent that she was sexually assaulted and the child may not be his even though mother was never sexually assaulted. In June, mother stops communicating with respondent and gives birth to the child. Mother and her husband execute relinquishments for the child’s adoption, where mother fails to provide information about respondent and states her pregnancy resulted from a sexual assault. Child is placed with prospective adoptive parents who file the adoption petition on July 9, 2013. Respondent contacts mother at the end of July and learns mother gave birth to the child but is not told the child is an adoptive placement until November. The adoption agency is also informed in November of respondent’s existence. Paternity testing indicates respondent is the father, and he files an objection to the adoption in December, 2013. At a hearing determining whether respondent’s consent is required under G.S. 48-3-601(a)(2)(b)(4)(II), respondent testified he set aside money from ATM withdrawals and cashback purchases from WalMart, which he kept in a lockbox in his room. The lockbox was produced at the 2014 hearing, and it had $3,260. In his testimony, respondent estimated he placed $100-$140/month in the lockbox although he had no receipts or records indicating when or what amounts were placed in the lockbox. The trial court found respondent credible and that his payments were regular and consistent and a reasonable method of providing support for the minor child and mother, based on his $32,000/year income. The trial court ordered his consent was required, and the Court of Appeals affirmed that order. The Supreme Court granted discretionary review.
  •  Standard of Review: Conclusions of law, which involve a determination that requires the exercise of judgment or application of legal principles, are reviewable de novo on appeal. “[D]etermining whether sufficient evidence supports a judgment is a conclusion of law and will be reviewed as such.” Sl. Op. at 10.
  • “To protect the significant interests of the child, biological parents, and adoption parents, Chapter 48 of our General Statutes, governing adoption procedures in North Carolina, establishes clear, objective tests to determine whose consent is required before a court may grant an adoption petition.” Sl. Op. at 1. G.S. 48-3-601 enables a putative father to unilaterally protect his parental rights if he complies with the requirements of that statute. One of those requirements is that the putative father has provided, within his financial means, reasonable and consistent payments for the support of the mother and/or child before the adoption petition is filed. G.S. 48-3-601(2)(b)(4)(II).
  • At issue in this case is whether respondent (1) provided payments that are real and tangible for the support of the mother and/or child, (2) whether the payments were reasonable in light of respondent’s financial means, and (3) whether the payments were made consistently as shown by an objectively verifiable record. His consent will not be required if he fails to prove allof the statutory requirements. The relevant time period is before the adoption petition was filed. Any evidence of actions taken after the filing of the petition is irrelevant, and consideration of such evidence is an error of law.
  • Respondent has the burden to prove through competent evidence that he complied with each statutory requirement. Looking to In re Anderson, 360 N.C. 271 (2006), the Court “emphasized the importance of a verifiable payment record to establish that a putative father made reasonable and consistent payments.” Sl. Op. at 15 (emphasis added).  As a matter of law, respondent’s evidence was insufficient to show he made payments during the relevant time period (before the petition was filed) or that each payment was reasonable and consistent with his financial means during the relevant statutory time period. Respondent’s testimony was uncorroborated. He conceded that he did not keep records and did not really know how much money was placed in the lockbox during the relevant time period. General bank statements and the lump sum amount presented at the trial in 2014 do not provide an objectively verifiable record showing consistently reasonable payments made during the relevant time period (before the petition was filed). Because respondent failed to prove he complied with the objective statutory requirements, his consent is not required.
  • Dissent: Disagreeing with the standard of review employed by the majority, the Court should have deferred to the trial court’s findings of fact when those findings of fact are supported by competent evidence. The evidence was sufficient to support the extensive trial court findings, which supported the conclusion of law that the respondent’s consent was required. The majority’s decision to require record-keeping or a formal accounting of payments is not supported by statute or case law.
  • Note: This opinion does not address whether the method of placing money in a special location in respondent’s home is a “payment” under the statute. It also does not address the additional statutory requirements of acknowledging paternity and visiting or communicating (or attempting to) with the mother and/or child.
Category:
Adoption of a Minor Child
Stage:
Consent
Topic:
Unwed Father
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