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In re: Adoption of Sean M

by R.S.

Continuing on our theme of putative fathers objecting to adoptions (see yesterday’s post on Supreme Court case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl), on March 22, 2013, the Maryland Court of Appeals decided a stepfather adoption case that reminds us of the importance of noting and meeting deadlines in our practice. See In re: Adoption of Sean M., No. 54, September Term 2012.

Shortly after the birth of Sean M. in 2009, Sean’s Mother filed a Complaint against William H. asserting that William H. was the father of Sean.  William H. (who happens to be an attorney), filed an Answer denying parentage and stating that he had no objection to Mother having custody.  The case was dismissed shortly thereafter by agreement of the parties.

On March 30, 2011[1], Sean’s stepfather filed a Petition for Stepparent Adoption of a Minor and Change of Name.  The Petition stated that “the natural father of the child has not been identified; no persons alleging to be the natural father of the minor child have come forward; and no natural father is listed on the minor child’s birth certificate.”[2] But at some level the Petition identified William H. as a potential father, arguing that even if he were the father, he had abandoned his parental rights.

The Circuit Court issued a show cause order to William H. stating, “If you wish to object to the adoption(s), you must file a notice…within thirty (30) days after this Order is served on you.”[3] The show cause order also read, “IF THE COURT HAS NOT RECEIVED YOUR NOTICE OF OBJECTION ON OR BEFORE THE DEADLINE STATED, YOU HAVE AGREED TO A TERMINATION OF YOUR PARENTAL RIGHTS.”[4]

Under this show cause order, William H.’s objection would have been due May 31, 2011.  The Circuit Court received his objection on June 1, 2011 – one day late.  The Circuit Court held that by not filing timely the Notice of Objection, William H had consented to the adoption as a matter of law.  Moreover, the Court held that his consent was irrevocable.  The Court of Special Appeals affirmed and held that the statutory scheme allowing this conclusion did not offend William H.’s procedural due process rights.

The Court of Appeals considered two questions:

  1. Whether a natural parent’s failure to file a timely objection to a proposed independent adoption, as directed in a show cause order, constitutes an irrevocable consent to the adoption; and
  2. Whether the statutory scheme resulting in an irrevocable deemed consent to an independent adoption offends the due process rights of the parent.[5]

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Court of Special Appeals that William H.’s failure to file timely the Notice of Objection operated as his irrevocable consent, as a matter of law, to the adoption.

Moreover, the Court of Appeals found that the statutory scheme did not violate William H.’s procedural due process rights.  The Court held that “the State has a compelling interest in protecting the child’s best interest in a disputed adoption case by establishing an effective and predictable (as much as possible) adoption process.”[6]

This case relates to Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl by reminding us that the crux of that case is federal law.  In Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, it is generally conceded that if the putative father were not a member of the Cherokee Nation he would be unable to object to the adoption under South Dakota state law – in the same way the Maryland Court of Appeals held that William H. is unable to object to his biological child’s adoption under Maryland state law.  Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl turns entirely on the federal legislation, Indian Child Welfare Act, focusing on adoptions of children with certain connections to American Indian sovereignties.

For Maryland, time will tell how important the Court’s holding that the State has a compelling interest in establishing adoption process will be.  Though it may ultimately be limited to adoption and CINA cases, it very well may be extended to other types of cases involving children. Either way, this case underscores in a profound way a point we take very seriously in our practice: deadlines are important.  It is essential for lawyers to understand, and to explain clearly to their clients, upcoming deadlines and potential consequences for missing those deadlines.


[1] The slip opinion asserts that Mother and Stepfather married on October 16, 2011, and that Stepfather filed a Petition for Stepparent Adoption on March 30, 2011.  It appears that one of these dates is erroneous.

[2] Slip Op. at 2

[3] Slip Op. at 3

[4] Slip Op. at 3-4.

[5] Slip Op. at 5-6

[6] Slip Op. at 16-17.

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