Ballard, In re

Decision Date08 October 1996
Docket NumberDocket No. 181450
Citation219 Mich.App. 329,556 N.W.2d 196
PartiesIn re Brandon Michael BALLARD, minor. Stacey BALLARD and Adoption Associates, Inc., Petitioners-Appellees, v. Jamie Lee BETHEL, Respondent-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

Black & Nicewander, P.C. by Terry L. Berens, Jenison, for petitioners-appellees.

Stephen L. Haslett, Plainwell, for respondent-appellant.

Before McDONALD, P.J., and MARKMAN and C.W. JOHNSON, * JJ.

MARKMAN, Judge.

Respondent Jamie L. Bethel appeals as of right the order terminating his parental rights. Respondent and petitioner Stacey Ballard are the biological parents of Brandon Michael Ballard, who was born on November 3, 1994. On November 4, 1994, petitioners filed a petition for a hearing to release parental rights so that Brandon could be placed for adoption. A hearing was held on November 22, 1994. At the time of the hearing, respondent was serving a ten- to fifteen-year prison sentence that began in August 1994. The court ordered the termination of respondent's parental rights and that Brandon be placed with adoptive parents. We affirm.

On appeal, respondent claims that the probate court erroneously determined that he did not provide care or support for the mother or child pursuant to M.C.L. § 710.39; M.S.A. § 27.3178(555.39) despite evidence that he sent Stacey $200 in October 1994. Such a determination subjects a putative father to less rigorous termination procedures than would a determination that a father had provided care or support. This issue requires us to review both the probate court's statutory interpretation and its factual determination that respondent did not provide support. "Statutory interpretation is a question of law that is reviewed de novo for error on appeal." In re Schnell, 214 Mich.App. 304, 310, 543 N.W.2d 11 (1995). This Court reviews factual findings with respect to termination of parental rights under the clearly erroneous standard. MCR 5.974(I); In re Miller, 433 Mich. 331, 337, 445 N.W.2d 161 (1989).

M.C.L. § 710.39; M.S.A. § 27.3178(555.39) states in pertinent part:

(1) If the putative father does not come within the provisions of subsection (2), and if the putative father appears at the hearing and requests custody of the child, the court shall inquire into his fitness and his ability to properly care for the child and shall determine whether the best interests of the child will be served by granting custody to him. If the court finds that it would not be in the best interests of the child to grant custody to the putative father, the court shall terminate his rights to the child.

(2) If the putative father has established a custodial relationship with the child or has provided support or care for the mother during pregnancy or for either mother or child after the child's birth during the 90 days before notice of the hearing was served upon him, the rights of the putative father shall not be terminated except by proceedings in accordance with section 51(6) of this chapter or section 2 of chapter XIIA.

In In re Barlow, 404 Mich. 216, 229, 273 N.W.2d 35 (1978), the Court summarized the effect of the two categories created by § 39:

The Adoption Code also provides substantive standards for deciding when a putative father's rights may appropriately be terminated. Section 39 of the code creates two categories of putative fathers and provides different standards for termination of the rights of each. Putative fathers who have established no custodial relationship with the child, and who have provided no support for the mother or child prior to the notice of hearing, may have their parental rights terminated if the court finds, after examining the father's fitness and ability to properly care for the child, "that it would not be in the best interests of the child to grant custody" to him. The parental rights of the second group, those who have established some kind of custodial or support relationship prior to the notice of hearing, are subject to termination only by proceedings under the general jurisdictional provisions of chapter 12A of the Probate Code. [Emphasis added.]

This Court recently addressed the issue of what constitutes support under § 39 in In re Gaipa, 219 Mich.App. 80, 555 N.W.2d 867 (1996). The Gaipa Court held at 84, 555 N.W.2d 869:

Because the quantum of "support or care for the mother during pregnancy" necessary for a putative father to come within the provisions of § 39(2) is unclear, judicial construction is appropriate....

As indicated by the Supreme Court in Barlow, supra, the group of putative fathers that comes within the provisions of § 39(2) do so because they have established some sort of custodial or support relationship with the child or mother. It seems clear that, in demanding such an established relationship, the Legislature must have intended more than an incidental, fleeting, or inconsequential offer of support or care and therefore must have intended more than "any" contribution by the putative father. Conversely, the Legislature's failure to require "substantial" or total support during the pregnancy--especially where other sections of the Adoption Code specifically contain such a "regular and substantial support" requirement, see e.g., M.C.L. § 710.51(6)(a); M.S.A. § 27.3178(555.51)(6)(a)--strongly suggests that the Legislature also did not intend that elevated standard to be applied in all cases and under all circumstances.

We are of the opinion that, by declining to require a certain and specific level of support or care for § 39(2) to apply, the Legislature rejected the notion of uniformly quantifying the adequacy of a putative father's support for the mother during pregnancy. Rather, it seems apparent that the Legislature intended that the courts determine case by case whether the father provided the kind of support and the amount of support that is reasonable under the circumstances of each particular case. [Citations omitted.]

Here, evidence indicated that respondent did not financially support Stacey while she was pregnant or contribute to the financial support of Brandon. Respondent and Stacey discovered that she was pregnant in March 1994. Respondent was arrested and jailed on April 27, 1994. Accordingly, he was not in prison throughout Stacey's entire pregnancy. The only financial contribution he made to Stacey and Brandon was two $100 money orders that he sent to Stacey from jail in October 1994. The funds for the money orders came from $500 from the sale of respondent's car that his mother placed in an account for him. He testified that he and his mother decided together to send some of this money to Stacey.

The probate court held:

It is my opinion that in the context of this case, given the lateness with which [the $200] arrived eight months after conception, seven months after discovery of the pregnancy, given the fact that [respondent] himself would not have arranged for that but for the insightful action of his mother in taking that money and securing it for him, that it is my opinion that that does not constitute support for the mother during the course of her pregnancy, which is basically how I read that requirement. Even though it is something, and, as I said, that's what makes it very close, it is, I guess, too little too late.

Under Gaipa, the mere payment of money is not the equivalent of "support." The $200 payment here constituted, at most, a token amount in the context of providing for the necessities of Stacey and the baby. Further, the payment was not provided in the context of any promise of continuing support. Indeed, respondent was incarcerated and spent the remaining funds from the sale of his car on attorney fees. Stacey and Brandon had received no prior support from respondent and had no expectation of further support from him. The payments were provided seven months after respondent learned that Stacey was pregnant. By respondent's own testimony, the payments were made at the behest of his mother. The timing of the payments indicates that they were solely designed to enhance respondent's position with respect to the termination of his parental rights rather than to contribute to the maintenance of Stacey or Brandon. This nominal, strategic payment does not "establish a support relationship." See Barlow at 229, 273 N.W.2d 35.

In determining whether a putative father has provided "the kind of support and the amount of support that is reasonable under the circumstances of [the] particular case," Gaipa, supra, the probate court may properly consider such factors as the amount of money provided, the amount of money provided relative to the maintenance needs of the mother or child, the timing of the payments, the nature of any commitments to make such payments, the nature of any expectations regarding the receipt of such payments, the regularity of such payments, and other related circumstances. Accordingly, respondent's payment here does not constitute "support" that would entitle him to a termination proceeding under M.C.L. § 710.51(6); M.S.A. § 27.3178(555.51)(6) or M.C.L. § 712A.2; M.S.A. § 27.3178(598.2). Therefore, we hold that the probate court did not clearly err in finding that respondent did not provide support under § 39(2) and that he was subject to termination of his parental rights in accordance with § 39(1). 1

Respondent next claims that the probate court erred in determining that termination of his parental rights was in the best interests of Brandon. Specifically, he contends that the probate court erred in failing to consider the possibility of custody and care by his mother and stepfather during his incarceration. "Statutory interpretation is a question of law that is reviewed de novo for error on appeal." Schnell at 310, 543 N.W.2d 11.

The probate court concluded that provision for custody and care by...

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