In re S.A.H.

Decision Date01 February 2022
Docket Number118,986 (Companion w/ No. 119,218),119,218 (Companion w/ No. 118,986)
Citation503 P.3d 1190
Parties In the MATTER OF the ADOPTION OF: S.A.H., Minor Child. In the Matter of the Guardianship of: S.A.H., Minor Child.
CourtOklahoma Supreme Court

503 P.3d 1190

In the MATTER OF the ADOPTION OF: S.A.H., Minor Child.

In the Matter of the Guardianship of: S.A.H., Minor Child.

118,986 (Companion w/ No. 119,218)
119,218 (Companion w/ No. 118,986)

Supreme Court of Oklahoma.

FILED FEBRUARY 1, 2022


Thomas H. Landrum, The Firm on Baltimore, PLLC, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Appellant.

Catherine Z. Welsh and Jim C. McGough, Welsh & McGough, PLLC, Tulsa, Oklahoma, for Appellees.

Winchester, J.

¶1 Today, we dispose of two related cases involving minor child S.A.H. by a single opinion. In Case No. 118,986, Appellant S.A.H.'s maternal first cousin (Cousin) appealed the district court's denial of her motion to vacate an order finalizing the adoption of the minor child to Appellees, S.A.H.'s paternal grandparents (Grandparents).1 In Case No 119,218,

503 P.3d 1193

Cousin appealed the dismissal of her petition for general guardianship based on Grandparents' adoption of S.A.H. We retained both appeals.

¶2 The issues before this Court are (1) whether the adoption court erred in granting the adoption of the minor child to Grandparents based on the consent of S.A.H.'s father (Father) while Cousin had a claim for general guardianship pending, and (2) whether the guardianship court erred in dismissing Cousin's petition for guardianship due to the adoption. We answer both in the negative. Cousin holds no constitutional or statutory right to unwind Grandparents' adoption to which Father consented. Due to Grandparents' adoption of the minor child, a guardianship is not necessary.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶3 S.A.H. was born out-of-wedlock on February 3, 2009. S.A.H.'s mother (Mother) had sole legal custody of S.A.H. until Mother could no longer care for the minor child due to a terminal illness. On May 2, 2019, Cousin petitioned to be S.A.H.'s temporary and general guardian in Tulsa County District Court, Case No. PG-2019-293 (Guardianship Matter). Cousin's basis for her request for the guardianship was that Mother had a terminal illness and S.A.H.'s father had not acknowledged paternity, had not obtained a court determination of paternity, and had not supported the minor child financially or otherwise. The district court appointed Cousin as the temporary guardian of the minor child. On May 4, 2019, Mother passed away.

¶4 On July 31, 2019, S.A.H.'s father (Father) petitioned for determination of paternity and custody of the minor child in Tulsa County District Court, Case No. FP-2019-230 (Paternity Matter). Father established his paternity through genetic testing.

¶5 On October 1, 2019, Father filed his notice of paternity adjudication and motion to dismiss the temporary guardianship in the Guardianship Matter. On October 16, 2019, the guardianship court held a show-cause hearing. The guardianship court found insufficient evidence to continue the guardianship and terminated Cousin's temporary guardianship. At Cousin's request, the guardianship court set a trial for her petition for general guardianship on January 22, 2020.

¶6 On October 17, 2019, Grandparents petitioned to adopt S.A.H. in Tulsa County District Court, Case No. FA-2019-357 (Adoption Matter). On November 1, 2019, Father petitioned the paternity court for custody of S.A.H. due to his established paternity, and the court granted Father sole legal and physical custody of the minor child. Father then provided his consent to Grandparents' adoption of the minor child in the Adoption Matter. On January 31, 2020, the adoption court held a best-interests hearing and issued the final decree of adoption to Grandparents.

¶7 In the Guardianship Matter, Cousin requested a continuance for the trial on her petition for general guardianship of the minor child. In February 2020, Cousin filed multiple motions in preparation for the trial, which prompted Grandparents to file a motion to dismiss the Guardianship Matter due to the adoption. On March 13, 2020, the guardianship court struck the hearing on Cousin's motions as moot due to the finalized adoption.

¶8 Almost two months after the guardianship court struck the hearing on Cousin's motions, Cousin filed a motion to vacate Grandparents' adoption in the Adoption Matter. The adoption court held a hearing and denied Cousin's motion to vacate, reasoning that Cousin did not demonstrate a basis under 12 O.S.2011, § 10312 to vacate the adoption.

503 P.3d 1194

¶9 On October 19, 2020, the guardianship court held a hearing and granted Grandparents' motion to dismiss the Guardianship Matter. The guardianship court concluded that Cousin's request for guardianship was moot due to the finalized adoption.

¶10 Cousin appealed the denial of her motion to vacate the final adoption decree in the Adoption Matter.3 Cousin also appealed the granting of Grandparents' motion to dismiss in the Guardianship Matter. We retained both appeals, and this opinion addresses both district courts' rulings.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶11 The Court reviews the appointment or termination of a guardian for an abuse of discretion. Bank of Okla., N.A. v. Red Arrow Marina Sales & Serv., Inc. , 2009 OK 77, ¶ 11, 224 P.3d 685, 693 ; Smith v. City of Stillwater , 2014 OK 42, ¶ 11, 328 P.3d 1192, 1197 ; Brigman v. Cheney , 1910 OK 316, ¶ 5, 112 P. 993, 994, 27 Okla. 510, 112 P. 993. We will not reverse unless the guardianship court's determination is against the clear weight of the evidence or contrary to law. In re Guardianship of Holly , 2007 OK 53, ¶ 19, 164 P.3d 137, 143. As Cousin appeals an order granting a motion to dismiss, we examine the issues of the dismissal of the Guardianship Matter de novo , since an appellate court has plenary, independent, and non-deferential authority to reexamine a trial court's legal rulings. Id .

¶12 The standard of review for the denial of Cousin's motion to vacate Grandparents' adoption of the minor child is also an abuse of discretion. Smith , 2014 OK 42, ¶ 11, 328 P.3d at 1197 ; Bank of Okla., N.A. , 2009 OK 77, ¶ 11, 224 P.3d at 693 ; In re Adoption of C.D.M. , 2001 OK 103, ¶ 23, 39 P.3d 802, 811. Applying these standards of review to the present case, Cousin fails to affirmatively show the district courts' decisions were an abuse of discretion, against the clear weight of the evidence, or contrary to law.

DISCUSSION

I. THE GUARDIANSHIP COURT AND ADOPTION COURT PROPERLY CONSIDERED THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE MINOR CHILD.

¶13 As a preliminary matter, Cousin focuses her arguments on appeal to an overarching issue: the district courts abused their discretion in not considering the best interests of the minor child when the courts terminated the temporary guardianship, granted the adoption to Grandparents, and dismissed the Guardianship Matter. Essentially, Cousin contends she could better care for the minor child than Father or Grandparents. We find this argument without merit.

¶14 Under Oklahoma law, the presumption is a minor child's best interest "is served by placement with its natural parent in the absence of clear and convincing evidence establishing that the parent is unfit." In re Guardianship of M.R.S. , 1998 OK 38, ¶ 14, 960 P.2d 357, 361. Another family member or a third party seeking custody must

503 P.3d 1195

affirmatively, not comparatively, show the natural parent is unfit. Ingles v. Hodges , 1977 OK 18, ¶ 9, 562 P.2d 845, 846 (holding even the children's preference was not sufficient to justify taking them from their father when there was no evidence of the father's unfitness). A court will not deprive natural parents of custody simply because another family might be able to provide more amenities and opportunities for the child. In re Guardianship of M.R.S. , 1998 OK 38, ¶ 21, 960 P.2d at 363 (holding the district court erred when it determined that the interest of the child outweighed any "rights" of the natural parent to her custody and control).

¶15 Cousin construes her request for a guardianship to be akin to a proceeding for termination of parental rights to obtain permanent custody of the minor child; it is not. The guardianship court could terminate Cousin's temporary guardianship of the minor child when it was no longer necessary—when the impediment to the natural parent's custody was removed, unless to do so would have been harmful to the welfare of the child. 30 O.S.2011, § 4-804 ; In re Guardianship of Hatfield , 1972 OK 10, ¶ 8, 493 P.2d 819, 821 ; see also Grose v. Romero , 1948 OK 120, 200 Okla. 330, 193 P.2d 1014. Cousin obtained a temporary guardianship, lasting only five months until Father established that he was the biological father of the minor. Once he did,...

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    • United States
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