Dear Abby Isn’t Always Right on the Details

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

    Dear Abby recently (April 17, 2017) contained a letter from a woman who was married, but no longer living with her husband, and who was instead living with a roommate, who her three year old son had looked upon as Daddy for the last nine months.  

    The woman’s goal was to be divorced, and to have her husband give up his parental rights to their child.  The woman was not concerned about receiving child support from her husband.

    The woman’s husband apparently shared these goals.

    The woman went on to say that she was worried that if something happened to her, their child would go to his biological father, rather than to the man that the child considers his dad.

    Interestingly, the woman wrote that she is a resident of Oregon.

    Dear Abby’s response was that if both parties are in agreement, a divorce can be amicable and not expensive.

    Unfortunately, Dear Abby missed what is apparently the most important part of the woman’s concerns.  Dear Abby also apparently misunderstands how these concerns can be resolved under Oregon law.

    The woman’s most significant concern seemed to be to ensure that her son would go to her roommate (who is the man who has been “Daddy,” for the last nine months), rather than to his biological father, if something were to happen to the woman herself.

    The woman was also quite willing to give up child support in order to achieve this goal.

    The unfortunate thing about Dear Abby’s advice is that for all practical purposes, in Oregon, one cannot terminate a father’s rights unless the state child protective services agency starts the process because they believe the parent to be unfit, or unless there is a step parent who is willing to step into the displaced parent’s shoes, and who will actually adopt the child.

    A step parent adoption is somewhat less cumbersome than other kinds of adoptions, but it is still a relatively complex process.  And it is far from clear from the letter whether the roommate is willing to make this commitment, which would include accepting financial responsibility for the child up to the time that the child is an adult, even if the step father and the mother split up.

    Whether a step parent adoption is even an option for someone who is, as described by the woman, merely a roommate, and in a situation where the father only walked away from the family nine months ago, is a significant question.  

    There is also a significant question whether a man who is only a roommate, and has only been the father figure for nine months out of the life of a three year old, even really wants to become an adoptive parent, with the financial commitments that will go on for at least another 15 years - or potentially for another 18 years, as the financial responsibilities of a parent can continue until the child is 21 in some cases in Oregon.

    Another thing that Dear Abby missed is that a court in Oregon is extremely unlikely to absolve a father of child support, even if the mother is willing to forego child support.  In essence, the courts take the view that child support is the child’s money, not the mother’s money.

    As outlined above, termination of a parent’s financial responsibility for a child is only likely to happen if there is a step parent adoption, which puts some other person into the shoes of the parent who is being relieved of this financial responsibility.
    This is true even if the father is unemployed and unemployable, since people are generally presumed to be able to make at least minimum wage, at least for purposes of calculating child support in Oregon.

    So - with all respect to Dear Abby, this is NOT a simple divorce, where the goals of the person who wrote Dear Abby can be met simply, quickly, and cheaply.  As is so often the case, even though the amounts of money that are at stake are not on the high end, the complexities of the case are on the high end, and the costs and complications of a divorce are determined by the complexities of the case, not simply the amounts of money involved.

    The amounts of money are not all that trivial, either.  For an ordinary middle class family, in the circumstances described above, the total child support that the father (or the adoptive father) could owe could range from $50,000 to $250,000, or even $300,000.

    Dear Abby was right that the woman needs to see a lawyer, but she was wrong on the two not so minor details that most concerned the woman - the cost that will likely be involved, and the difficulty of achieving the woman’s goals in the Oregon legal system, even if all the adults involved are in agreement.