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In re Adoption of C.H.M.

Supreme Court of North Carolina

May 11, 2018

IN THE MATTER OF THE ADOPTION OF C.H.M., a minor child

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 9 October 2017.

          On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 788 S.E.2d 594 (2016), affirming an order entered on 9 February 2015 by Judge Debra Sasser in District Court, Wake County.

          Manning, Fulton & Skinner, P.A., by Michael S. Harrell, for petitioner-appellants.

          Marshall & Taylor, PLLC, by Travis R. Taylor; and Robert A. Smith for respondent-appellee.

          NEWBY, JUSTICE.

         In this case we consider whether the evidence was sufficient as a matter of law to support the trial court's order requiring respondent father's consent before proceeding with the adoption of minor child C.H.M. To protect the significant interests of the child, biological parents, and adoptive parents, Chapter 48 of our General Statutes, governing adoption procedures in North Carolina, establishes clear, objective tests to determine whose consent is required before a court may grant an adoption petition. Under section 48-3-601, a putative father may unilaterally protect his paternal rights if he establishes that he has acknowledged his paternity, regularly communicated or attempted to communicate with the biological mother or minor child, and provided reasonable and consistent payments for the support of the biological mother, minor, or both, in accordance with his financial means. All of these measures must be accomplished no later than the filing of the adoption petition. As a matter of law respondent's evidence does not establish that he made reasonable and consistent payments for the support of the biological mother or minor child before the filing of the adoption petition. Because respondent failed to meet his burden of proving that he provided such support within the relevant statutory period, we conclude that the evidence is legally insufficient to support the trial court's order requiring respondent's consent. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals that affirmed the trial court's order.

         From 2009 through 2012, respondent and the biological mother (Wood) had an "on and off" intimate relationship while they both lived in Illinois. In November 2012, Wood ended her relationship with respondent to resume a relationship with another man, whom she married shortly thereafter in January 2013. As respondent was aware, Wood's husband worked and resided in North Carolina, though she continued to stay in Illinois for several months. After Wood's marriage, respondent and Wood continued to communicate primarily through Facebook.

         On 11 February 2013, Wood informed respondent that she was twenty weeks pregnant (or halfway through her pregnancy) with his child, but immediately told respondent to keep everything "as secret as possible." Upon learning he was the child's father, respondent told Wood he intended to "start setting money aside" for the child, but provided neither support at that time nor any details of his plan.

         In March, respondent accompanied Wood to her first medical appointment and sonogram. The sonogram confirmed respondent's understanding of the timing of Wood's pregnancy, showing she was between her second and third trimesters. While respondent expressed his enthusiasm for becoming a father and offered to pay for the office visit, Wood refused respondent's offer because her husband's insurance covered the appointment cost. Out of concern that people in their small hometown would suspect something, respondent did not buy any baby items for C.H.M. during the pregnancy. In their Facebook messages between February and July 2013, respondent and Wood's primary method of communication, respondent offered Wood his emotional support but never stated that he was actually saving money for the child. Respondent did not give Wood any monetary payments for the minor child's support, and Wood rejected respondent's various offers of financial assistance.

         After consistent communication between the two throughout February and March, on 9 April 2013, Wood falsely told respondent the child might not be his, contending she had been sexually assaulted around the time of conception. Thereafter, Wood refused respondent's requests for a paternity test.

         Sometime in June, Wood moved to North Carolina to join her husband, and near the end of June (around her due date), Wood stopped communicating with respondent. On 28 June 2013, Wood gave birth to C.H.M. After C.H.M.'s birth, Wood contacted an adoption agency through a social worker and thereafter provided her affidavit that the pregnancy resulted from a sexual assault by an unknown assailant. Wood and her husband, the legally presumed father, signed relinquishments placing C.H.M. with the adoption agency. Knowing nothing about the possible involvement of respondent, the agency and petitioners, who wished to adopt C.H.M., proceeded with plans to establish a home for the child. On 9 July 2013, petitioners filed the adoption petition and received eleven-day-old C.H.M. into their home, where the child has been cared for during the almost five years of her life.

         Though he was aware of Wood's approximate delivery date, respondent did not attempt to contact Wood via Facebook until the end of July, a month after C.H.M.'s birth and following the adoption petition's filing. Several days later, Wood replied and met respondent during one of her return trips to Illinois, at which point he observed she was no longer pregnant. Later that evening, Wood told respondent that she had given birth to the child but that C.H.M. was still at the hospital. Finally, in September 2013, respondent contacted legal counsel about his potential paternal rights and the possibility of a paternity test. Wood told respondent in mid-November about C.H.M.'s adoption, at which time she first informed the adoption agency about respondent. The adoption agency contacted respondent and requested a paternity test. On 4 December 2013, respondent took a paternity test, which confirmed he is the biological father.

          On 23 December 2013, more than five months after the adoption petition had been filed, respondent filed his formal objection to the adoption. At the hearing on the matter in April 2014, respondent offered evidence attempting to prove that he met all the statutory requirements for his consent to be necessary, including that he had made reasonable and consistent payments for the support of the minor child, thereby entitling him to object to the adoption. Respondent testified that he had set aside money for C.H.M. in a special location in his room, a "lockbox, " in which he placed funds withdrawn from ATM transactions or obtained via "cash back" purchases from Walmart. Respondent provided bank statements from 2012 and 2013, which showed some sporadic withdrawals and general purchases from Walmart, though he provided no records showing the purpose of the withdrawals. Respondent produced no receipts indicating that he received cash back from any Walmart purchases within the statutorily relevant time frame, providing only two Walmart receipts from 2014, more than six months after the statutory deadline. Throughout the hearing, respondent offered no definitive testimony on the timing of his placement of any funds, before or after the adoption petition's filing on July 9, which may have resulted in cash for the lockbox.

         The lockbox that respondent produced at the April 2014 hearing then contained $3260. Respondent admitted that the placement of funds in the lockbox was sporadic and was not comprised of an "exact amount each time, " as the lockbox contained "just whatever [he] could afford here and there." Because respondent did not "keep[ ] records [he did not] really know" how much he was placing in the lockbox, though he thought it was somewhere around $100 to $140 per month. Respondent did not provide any records indicating the dates of any deposits or the amount of money in the lockbox before the statutorily relevant date, 9 July 2013. Respondent stated that he made no specific designation "on paper" or elsewhere regarding the money's purpose nor did he confide in anyone about his plan or the lockbox's existence. Though respondent subpoenaed Wood, who was then back in Illinois, so she could testify, Wood did not appear at the hearing, and respondent did not present any witnesses to confirm that he had placed money in the lockbox before the adoption petition was filed.

         The trial court noted that whether respondent met the statutory requirements depended on its resolution of what it deemed to be the major factual dispute in the case, "whether Respondent/Father's testimony regarding putting money aside for the minor child and Mrs. Wood is credible." Based on respondent's evidence, the trial court made the following findings:

7(h). During Mrs. Wood's pregnancy and after the child's birth Respondent/Father saved money on a consistent and regular basis and designated this money for the minor child. Respondent/Father also testified that he disclosed to Mrs. Wood that he was saving money for the minor child.
13(e)(1). Respondent/Father never provided any actual financial payments to Mrs. Wood or to the minor child either prior to the filing of the petition or since the filing of the petition.
13(e)(9). From the time Mrs. Wood told him that she was pregnant with his child and continuing through the time of the instant hearing, Respondent/Father made regular and consistent payments into his lock box/safe for the support of the minor child. These payments were made on a monthly (and sometimes more frequent) basis. While these funds were not deposited into a bank or other financial institution, they were deposited into a safe, and these funds were earmarked for the minor child. No other funds were deposited into this safe.
13(e)(10). At the time of the instant hearing, Respondent/Father had $3, 260 in the safe.
13(e)(11). . . . Prior to the filing of the petition, Respondent/Father earned $32, 000 a year from [his] employment. His annual earnings are now around $35, 000. . . .
13(e)(12). Respondent/Father deposited at least
$100 - $140 a month into the safe for the benefit of Ms. Wood and the child, and on average, paid approximately $225 per month in support for the minor child.

         Ultimately, the trial court concluded that

Respondent/Father's regular and consistent deposits into the safe were a reasonable method of providing support for the minor child and Mrs. Wood. His testimony regarding monthly deposits into his safe of at least $100 - $140 per month, from the time he learned of Ms. Wood's pregnancy through the instant trial is credible.

         Thus, considering evidence of events both before and after the petition filing date of 9 July 2013, the trial court concluded that respondent's "reasonable method" of saving met the requirements of section 48-3-601(2)(b)(4)(II). Moreover, the trial court deemed respondent's lump sum $3260 presented at trial, his uncorroborated testimony, and his production of general bank statements as having created "a legally sufficient payment record of his efforts to provide support." As such, the trial court determined that respondent's consent was required to proceed with the adoption.

         The Court of Appeals affirmed, In re Adoption of C.H.M., __ N.C.App. __, __, 788 S.E.2d 594, 601 (2016), opining that this Court's opinion in In re Adoption of Anderson, 360 N.C. 271, 624 S.E.2d 626 (2006), "did not purport to provide an exhaustive list of ways for a father to [comply with the statute], nor did it explicitly impose any sort of specific accounting requirements, " In re C.H.M., __ N.C.App. at __, 788 S.E.2d at 600. The court also determined that whether respondent had presented adequate evidence to meet the payment prong of the statute is a factual finding as opposed to a legal conclusion, making that ruling subject to a deferential standard of review on appeal. Id. at__, 788 S.E.2d at 600 (citing In re Adoption of Shuler, 162 N.C.App. 328, 330-31, 590 S.E.2d 458, 460 (2004)). Thus, the court concluded that by considering all of respondent's evidence, in the form of his bank records, Facebook messages, and uncorroborated testimony about events before and after the adoption petition's filing, respondent produced sufficient evidence showing that he complied with the statutory requirements. Id. at__, 788 S.E.2d at 600. We allowed the adoptive parents' petition for discretionary review to determine whether the trial court correctly concluded that respondent complied with the support payment requirement of section 48-3-601.

         Because of a pregnancy's natural timetable and the need of a newborn to have a home, the adoption statutes provide a related window of time by which a putative father must meet clear statutory requirements that establish his paternal rights and make his consent to the adoption necessary. These statutory requirements enumerate objective tests to ensure that all parties involved, including the biological mother, adoptive parents, adoption agency, and the courts, receive adequate notice of the father's intent to assert his paternal rights. One requirement is that a putative father provide reasonable and consistent payments for the support of the biological mother or minor child before, at the latest, the date the adoption petition is filed. Thus, by imposing objective criteria to be met by a deadline consistent with the needs of a newborn child, the statute achieves its overall purpose of providing a final and uninterrupted placement for the child.

         It is undisputed that respondent had the burden of proof to establish his compliance with the statutory requirements. Even assuming, without deciding, that respondent's method of placing funds subjectively intended for the minor child in a special location in his home constitutes a statutory "payment, " respondent nonetheless failed to prove that such payments met the other statutory criteria. As a matter of law, respondent's evidence was insufficient to establish that he made such payments before the ...


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