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W.H.J. v. J.N.W., J.A.W., and N.H.J., A Minor Child

Case No. 2022-CA-1055-ME

Warren Circuit Court, Family Court Division

Decided by Caldwell, Dixon, and Eckerle, Judges

Opinion by Caldwell, Judge

Date Rendered: May 19, 2023

Issue: Whether Stepparent Adoption Could be Upheld Despite Family Court’s Failure to Utilize the Clear and Convincing Evidence Standard

Mother and Father divorced in 2018. The decree of dissolution awarded sole custody of Child to Mother and prohibited Father from any contact with Child due to his non-compliance with substance abuse and mental health treatment. Mother remarried in 2020, and Stepfather filed a petition to adopt child in 2021. Father did not consent to the adoption.

In ultimately granting the adoption, the Family Court found that Father failed to provide essential parental care and protection for Child for at least six months, and there was no reasonable expectation of improvement. The Family Court failed to apply the constitutionally required clear and convincing evidence standard.

Although Father did not raise the Family Court’s failure to use the clear and convincing evidence standard as a basis for relief in his brief, the Court of Appeals found it could not “ignore a fundamental error ‘which is so glaring and flows naturally under our appellate review of the issue raised.’”

Relying on repeated precedent from the Kentucky Supreme Court which stresses that courts must use the clear and convincing standard when terminating parental rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment of United States Constitution,  the Court of Appeals held that an adoption decision which does not explicitly rely upon the clear and convincing evidence standard must be vacated and remanded to the lower court for a new trial without assessing the evidence to determine if the error was harmless.

Digested by Emily T. Cecconi