Hays v. Hays

Decision Date23 June 2006
Docket Number2040482.
Citation946 So.2d 867
PartiesEvelyn HAYS v. Mavis HAYS.
CourtAlabama Court of Civil Appeals

John R. Campbell of Kettell & Campbell, L.L.P., Huntsville, for appellant.

Jerry Wayne Baker, Jr., Albertville, for appellee.

PER CURIAM.

Evelyn Hays ("the mother") appeals a judgment entered by the Marshall Probate Court that granted the petition of Mavis Hays ("the stepmother") to adopt Ashley Christine Hays ("the daughter"), the biological daughter of the mother. We reverse and remand.

The stepmother was married to the daughter's biological father, Steven Hays ("the father"), from 1987 until his death in April 2004. On June 15, 2004, the stepmother filed a petition to adopt the daughter, and the daughter filed a motion to consent to the adoption with the probate court. The daughter attained the age of majority on June 17, 2004. The probate court set September 2, 2004, as the hearing date for the adoption petition.1 On July 14 and July 29, 2004, the mother filed objections with the probate court contesting the adoption. The daughter executed a written consent to the adoption on September 2, 2004, pursuant to § 26-10A-6, Ala.Code 1975.

The probate court entered a judgment on September 17, 2004, granting the stepmother's petition to adopt the daughter. The mother filed a postjudgment motion in which she argued, among other things, that the stepmother could not adopt the daughter pursuant to § 26-10A-6(2)c. because, she argued, the daughter was no longer "a stepchild by marriage" upon the death of the father. That motion was subsequently denied by operation of law. The mother timely appealed.

On appeal, the mother argues that the probate court erred in granting the stepmother's petition to adopt the daughter.

The Alabama Adoption Code ("the AAC"), codified at § 26-10A-1 et seq., Ala. Code 1975, establishes statutory criteria for adoption proceedings. On August 1, 2004, the legislature amended § 26-10A-6 of the AAC to extend the scope of adult adoptions.

Pursuant to § 26-10A-6(2)c., Ala.Code 1975, Alabama law now permits adult adoptions when an adult "consents in writing to be adopted and is related in any degree of kinship, as defined by the intestacy laws of Alabama, or is a stepchild by marriage."2,3 (Emphasis added.)

"In Alabama, the right of adoption is purely statutory and in derogation of the common law, . . . and unless the statute by express provision or necessary implication confers the right of adoption, such right does not exist." Evans v. Rosser, 280 Ala. 163, 164-65, 190 So.2d 716, 717 (1966) (citing Doby v. Carroll, 274 Ala. 273, 147 So.2d 803 (1962)). Furthermore, "[w]e have always required strict adherence to the statutory requirements in adoption proceedings." McCoy v. McCoy, 549 So.2d 53, 57 (Ala.1989) (citing Ex parte Sullivan, 407 So.2d 559 (Ala.1981)).

We narrowly decide this case by examining the legal relationship of a stepparent and a stepchild and the plain-language definition of a "stepchild by marriage." In order to determine whether the daughter qualified as a "stepchild by marriage" pursuant to § 26-10A-6(2)c., we must first examine the familial relationship of a stepparent and a stepchild. The stepparent-stepchild relationship is one that is created through affinity. See Black's Law Dictionary 63 (8th ed.2004) (defining "affinity" as "[a]ny familial relation resulting from a marriage"). Additionally, affinity is extinguished upon the termination of the very means that created it, that is, the marriage of the natural parent and the stepparent. See Pomerantz v. Rosenberg, 593 S.W.2d 815, 817 (Tex.App.1980) ("This [affinity] relationship is also terminated upon the death of a spouse. . . ."); see also Orellana v. Escalante, 228 A.D.2d 63, 66, 653 N.Y.S.2d 992, 993 (N.Y.App.Div. 1997) ("By definition, however, a relation of affinity is based upon marriage (see, Black's Law Dictionary 59 [6th ed.1990]) and divorce destroys the foundation of that relation. Thus, the relation of affinity between stepparent and stepchildren terminates upon the divorce of the parent and stepparent. . . ."); Clifford S. v. Superior Court, 38 Cal.App.4th 747, 752, 45 Cal. Rptr.2d 333, 335-36 (1995) ("A person becomes a stepparent by marrying the natural biological parent and loses stepparent status should the marriage be terminated."); and 41 Am.Jur.2d Husband and Wife § 4 (2005) ("Affinity relationships arise out of marriage and are always terminated by divorce. The relationship is also terminated by the death of a spouse. . . .").

Because a stepparent's affinity relationship with his or her stepchild is extinguished upon the death of the stepchild's natural parent, the legal relationship between the stepparent and the stepchild is also extinguished. See Newman v. Newman, 667 So.2d 1362, 1366 (Ala.Civ.App. 1994) (concluding that a stepfather's legal relationship to his stepchild was extinguished upon the death of his spouse, who was the natural custodial parent); see also Shoemaker v. Shoemaker, 563 So.2d 1032, 1034 (Ala.Civ.App.1990) ("the legal severance of the stepparent-natural parent relationship would also sever any legal relationship of the stepparent-stepchild for all practical purposes").

Furthermore, "`[i]t is an ingrained principle of statutory construction that "[t]he Legislature is presumed to be aware of existing law and judicial interpretation when it adopts a statute. Ex parte Louisville & N.R.R., 398 So.2d 291, 296 (Ala. 1981)." Carson v. City of Prichard, 709 So.2d 1199, 1206 (Ala.1998).'" Holcomb v Carraway, 945 So.2d 1009, 1020 (Ala.2006). Because the legislature is presumed to possess knowledge of existing caselaw regarding the termination of the stepparent-stepchild relationship upon the death of the natural parent, see Newman and Shoemaker, supra, we will not impute a contrary legislative intent.

In addition, a plain-language analysis of the phrase "a stepchild by marriage" as stated in § 26-10A-6(2)c. produces a consistent result.

"`Words used in [a] statute must be given their natural, plain, ordinary, and commonly understood meaning, and where plain language is used a court is bound to interpret that language to mean exactly what it says. If the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, then there is no room for judicial construction and the clearly expressed intent of the Legislature must be given effect.'"

Ex parte Prudential Ins. Co. of America, 721 So.2d 1135, 1138 (Ala.1998) (quoting Tuscaloosa County Comm'n v. Deputy Sheriffs' Ass'n of Tuscaloosa County, 589 So.2d 687, 689 (Ala.1991)). According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 170 (11th ed.2003), "by" is defined as "through or through the medium of"; "during the course of"; and "through the agency or instrumentality of." Based on a plain-language interpretation, "a stepchild by marriage" connotes a relationship that is established through the marriage or during the course of the marriage. When the marriage is no longer in existence, the stepparent-stepchild relationship is likewise extinguished.

Therefore, based upon (1) the absence of an express provision providing otherwise, (2) the plain language of the statute, and (3) the aforementioned legal principles, we are constrained to hold that the daughter, at the time of the purported adoption, was not a "stepchild by marriage" of the stepmother pursuant to § 26-10A-6(2)c. Consequently, we reverse the judgment granting the stepmother's petition to adopt the daughter and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. Because we reverse the judgment, we pretermit a discussion of the mother's remaining arguments in support of the reversal of the probate court's judgment granting the adoption petition.

REVERSED AND REMANDED.

CRAWLEY, P.J., and THOMPSON and PITTMAN, JJ., concur.

MURDOCK and BRYAN JJ., concur specially, with writings.

MURDOCK, Judge, concurring specially.

I concur with the main opinion, but I write separately to express what I believe to be more fundamental grounds on which the trial court erred to reversal.

I. Constitutional Concerns

First and foremost, Evelyn Hays ("the mother") argues that the purported adoption of her daughter without her consent violates her fundamental due-process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.4 I agree. The United States Supreme Court, as well as this court, has repeatedly recognized the fundamental right of the parent in the parent-child relationship. See generally, e.g., Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. 745, 102 S.Ct. 1388, 71 L.Ed.2d 599 (1982); Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 120 S.Ct. 2054, 147 L.Ed.2d 49 (2000); Michael H. v. Gerald D., 491 U.S. 110, 123-24, 109 S.Ct 2333, 105 L.Ed.2d 91 (1989); Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 602, 99 S.Ct. 2493, 61 L.Ed.2d 101 (1979); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, 232, 92 S.Ct. 1526, 32 L.Ed.2d 15 (1972); Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645, 658-59, 92 S.Ct. 1208, 31 L.Ed.2d 551 (1972); Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 166, 64 S.Ct. 438, 88 L.Ed. 645 (1944); Pierce v. Soc'y of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 534-35, 45 S.Ct. 571, 69 L.Ed. 1070 (1925); Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 396-99, 43 S.Ct. 625, 67 L.Ed. 1042 (1923); Beck v. Beck, 865 So.2d 446, 451 (Ala.Civ. App.2003) (Murdock, J., concurring in the result); G.P. v. A.A.K., 841 So.2d 1252 (Ala.Civ.App.2002); L.B.S. v. L.M.S., 826 So.2d 178, 187-88 (Ala.Civ.App.2002) (Murdock, J., concurring in the judgment of reversal only); and R.S.C. v. J.B.C., 812 So.2d 361 (Ala.Civ.App.2001).5

Indeed, the right of a parent in the parent-child relationship is "perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by [the United States Supreme] Court." Troxel, 530 U.S. at 65, 120 S.Ct. 2054. The rights of both parents and children vis-à-vis the parent-child relationship are a function of the importance that western culture and our jurisprudence places on family. See, e.g., Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762, 769, 97 S.Ct. 1459, 52 L.Ed.2d...

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