A.N. v. M.I.W. (In re Adoption of P.N.)

In A.N. v. M.I.W. (In re Adoption of P.N.), 2006 UT 64, 148 P.3d 927, the child's biological mother relinquished her parental rights and gave custody of the child to a couple seeking to adopt him. The district court later found the mother's relinquishment to be ineffective. The mother and biological father both opposed the adoption and sought custody of the child, who, at the time, was in the custody of the prospective adoptive parents. Id. The trial court found no basis for terminating the parental rights of either of the biological parents and therefore dismissed the petition for adoption. Id. It then scheduled a "best interests trial" and awarded custody of the child to the prospective adoptive parents. Id. The Court reversed, holding that it was error for the court to award custody of P.N. to legal strangers in the absence of an order terminating the parental rights of his fit natural parents. Id. The Court therefore remanded the case for a determination of custody as between the biological parents. Id. Although the case involved custody rather than visitation and was based upon an analysis of the statute governing adoption, Utah Code Ann. 78-30-4.16 (Supp. 2006), it is nevertheless illustrative of the proposition that a child's fit legal parent is presumed to act in his best interests. Therefore, absent a statutory basis for doing so, it is improper for a court to second-guess the decision of the fit legal parents by conducting a "best interests" analysis. In A.N. v. N.I.W. (In re P.N.), the Court reviewed a failed adoption where the unmarried biological father was not willing to consent. The Court noted that the statute required the trial court to dismiss the adoption petition and to promptly hold a hearing to determine the temporary custody arrangements for the child. The trial court was not at liberty to disregard the biological father's rights to custody of his child in favor of the failed-adoptive parents. The biological father had not been determined to be an unfit parent, nor had his parental rights been terminated or diminished in any way. The failed-adoptive parents, once the petition for adoption had been dismissed, became legal strangers to the child and could no longer claim any rights to custody, control, or other access to the child.