September 27, 2023

Children are naturally naive and do not know their way around the world. It’s the parent’s responsibility to hold their hand and guide them until they reach a certain age. Parenting is considered a sacred duty as the decisions taken by the father and mother help in shaping the future of the child.

In a marriage, parental responsibilities are shared and mutually understood between the couple, without the need for a legal document. But what if you have to legally demarcate your responsibilities towards the child, in situations such as a divorce? Does the US law have any rules towards parental responsibility?

In this post, MomJunction tells you what parental responsibility is, how it is divided between the couple, how and when the responsibility ends, and what happens in the case of a divorce.

What Is Parental Responsibility?

Parental responsibility is a set of rights and duties that a parent or a legal guardian has towards their children. Usually, parental responsibility includes both ‘parenting time’ and ‘decision making’.

When in a relationship, both the partners have equal parental responsibility towards their children, but when they get divorced, some responsibilities are shared while some are exclusively retained by one parent.

What Are Parental Rights?

As long as the child is a minor, the parents or legal custodians have the following rights in the US. However, these rights and responsibilities may vary from state to state.

  1. Child custody: It can be divided into two aspects, legal and physical:
  • Legal custody decides the right to make decisions regarding the health, education, and welfare of the child.
  • Physical custody decides where the child will live.

In the case of divorce or legal separation, the custody can be mutually decided or is decided by the court taking into consideration the best interests of the child. In some cases, the court can also assign custody to grandparents or others when both the parents are not fit for it.

  1. Visitation: Both the parents have a right to maintain contact with the child, meet them and build a bond with them.
  2. Inheritance: The right to pass on the property to the child as an inheritance or as a gift. The rights also include access to the child’s earnings and inheritance in the case of the child’s untimely death.

Along with the rights, the law requires the parents to meet their responsibilities towards the child.

[ Read: Parenting Quotes That Reflect Love And Care ]

What Are Parental Responsibilities?

Here are the specific responsibilities that the parents or legal guardians must fulfill.

  1. Provide an environment that is safe and free of any physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
  1. Provide your child with basic needs such as nutritious food, shelter, clothing, and medical care.
  1. Nurture the child’s self-esteem needs, such as accepting them for who they are, and encouraging and supporting them to grow in life.
  1. Teach moral values such as honesty, responsibility, patience, etc., and correct them when they go wrong.
  1. Respect their feelings, opinions, and individuality.
  1. Take an interest in their education and spend quality time to help them meet their goals in life.

A parent’s responsibilities cannot be limited. The mother and the father are responsible for every aspect of the child’s life until the child reaches a certain age.

Who Has Parental Responsibility?

US law has two rules to determine parental responsibility:

  • The biological parents are the first to have parental responsibility. All birth mothers automatically get the responsibility (1), whereas the father only gets it if he is married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth.
  • The law recognizes only one set of parents for parental responsibility. For example, after adoption, the biological parents lose all their rights on the child.

A few exceptions are:

  • If the child was born before the couple got into the relationship, the mother will have the parental rights while the father has to apply to the court for joint parental responsibility.
  • If the mother is a minor at the time of childbirth, a guardian is appointed for the child, and once the mother becomes a major, she can get parental responsibility.
  • An unmarried man can accept parental responsibility by marrying the mother and being named as the father in the certificate.
  • When the parents are unfit or dead, the parental responsibility is given to the grandparents (if they volunteer) or to a certified agency.

A parent’s responsibilities are the highest when the child is an infant. Gradually, the child grows to a stage where they no more need support and they become independent. Legally, this happens at a certain age.

When Does Parental Responsibility End?

Parental responsibility ends when the child attains the age of 18, but this can vary from state to state. The responsibilities might extend beyond 18 years if the child has any physical or mental disabilities.

In some cases, parental responsibility ends even before the child is 18 years old. Such instances include:

  • The child has married or entered a registered partnership before attaining 18 years.
  • There are disputes in the marriage.
  • The child is subjected to neglect or abuse.
  • The father, who has obtained parental responsibility through a petition, will lose it if a specific order discharges it.
  • The child is given up for adoption, in which case the responsibility gets transferred to the adopting parents.

While the responsibility ends in the above cases, in some cases the parents or guardians can lose or let go of it.

[ Read: Parent-Child Relationship ]

When Can A Parent Lose Parental Responsibility?

There are instances where a parent can lose custody and responsibility of their children either voluntarily or involuntarily.

  1. Voluntary termination: The parent decides to give up the responsibility of the child. This is likely to happen when parents decide to get their child adopted or when the child is born to a minor mother. This voluntary termination can be done by surrendering their parental responsibility to a registered adoption agency or by choosing the adoptive parents (2).
  1. Involuntary termination: When there is a threat to the child’s welfare and life, the court can terminate parental responsibility. This is known as involuntary termination. The grounds for involuntary termination may vary from state to state. However, here are some of the common grounds for involuntary termination of parental responsibility:
  • Chronic abuse or neglect
  • Abandonment of the child
  • Long-term mental illness of the parent or the parent is determined unfit of taking care of the child
  • Long-term alcohol or drug abuse by the parents
  • Inability to provide the basic needs and financial support to children
  • Felony or imprisonment of the parent

Once it is determined that the parent is unfit to take up parental responsibility, the child is rescued by the child welfare system. In such cases, the parents do not lose their responsibility immediately. The child welfare system takes necessary steps to preserve the family and reunite them through services such as parenting classes, substance abuse treatment or family therapy.

While the parents undergo these services, the child is kept either with a foster family or a foster home. Once the court is convinced the family is safe for the child, it might reunite them. If not, the court will legally terminate their parental responsibility. In certain extreme cases, the court also has the authority to terminate the responsibility immediately.

What Happens To Parental Responsibility In The Case Of A Divorce?

In the case of a divorce, parental responsibility of minor children can be mutually decided by the couple. Otherwise, the court takes the decision while considering the best interests of the child.

There are four types of child custody in cases of divorce:

  1. Sole physical custody: In this type, the child shall reside with one parent but the legal custody rests with both the parents. Therefore, they must prepare a parenting plan and get it approved by the court. The other parent is then given visitation rights.
  1. Joint physical custody: Here the child spends time under the supervision of both the parents. This custody works well when the parents share mutual respect and friendship for each other.
  1. Sole legal custody: Only one parent has the authority to take all the important decisions regarding the child. Usually, physical custody also rests with the same parent. If the other parent is abusive, then the court can restrict them from having any contact with the child.
  1. Joint legal custody: Both parents have a say in the decision making regarding the child. Parents can share legal custody even if they do not share physical custody.

Matters regarding child support can also be decided mutually, or the court shall decide after taking into consideration the financial situation of both the parents.

[ Read: Parenting Problems And Solutions ]

Parents play a significant role in the growth and development of their children. And the sense of responsibility comes instinctively. However, laws come into action when those parental instincts do not take the precedence or there seem to be other priorities than the responsibility toward the child or when the parents are separating. The laws are made to protect and secure the future of the child in the case of any disturbance in their parental relationship.

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