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How Do Family Courts Decide Whether a Parent Is Unfit?

Parent Unfit

How Do Family Courts Decide Whether a Parent Is Unfit?

September 19, 2023

By Johnson/Turner Legal

How Do Family Courts Decide Whether a Parent Is Unfit?

September 19, 2023

By Johnson/Turner Legal

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read Summary)

    • Parental rights are protected by law and can only be terminated by giving up the right or being found unfit by a court.
    • A court can find a parent unfit if they are unable to fulfill their role in their child’s life, such as making decisions for the child’s well-being, actively abusing the child, or suffering from a persistent addiction or health issue.
    • A finding of unfitness is fact-specific and difficult to undo, and the court will consider several factors in deciding whether a parent is unfit.
    • These factors include the history of providing appropriate parental care, the permanency of the situation, and the intentionality of the parent’s actions.
    • Pursuing a finding of unfitness against the other parent can be the first step towards gaining sole legal and physical custody, clearing the way for a stepparent to adopt, or protecting the child from abuse or neglect.
    • A child custody lawyer can help gather evidence and present a compelling case if necessary to protect the child.


Parenting a child is more than a privilege; it is a right that is fiercely protected by the law. Every parent is presumed to be fit and capable of parenting their child, and the right to parent can only be extinguished in two ways. First, a parent can give up their right to parent their child so long as another person is willing to step in and become the legal parent. Secondly, a court can find a parent to be unfit.

A court that finds a parent unfit can proceed to terminate or sever that parent’s legal rights to their child. A parent whose rights are terminated would no longer have any right to visit with or spend time with their child or participate in raising their child. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine that courts do not make such a finding lightly.

The Meaning of Parental Unfitness

When a court finds that a parent is unfit and their rights should be terminated, it means the court has found the parent incapable of fulfilling their role in their child’s life. This can mean several things:

  • The parent does not make decisions that are conducive to the child’s well-being
  • The parent actively abuses the child or permits others to abuse the child
  • The parent is suffering from a health issue or persistent addiction that makes the parent physically or mentally incapable of parenting their child
  • The parent has abandoned their child or demonstrated through actions they no longer want to be a parent to their child

In short, parental fitness relates to the parent’s physical and mental capacity to adequately provide and care for their child’s physical, mental, and emotional needs. The court is not to insert its own parenting standards into its analysis or second-guess an otherwise fit parent’s priorities and choices unless those choices threaten the child in some way.

A finding of unfitness is fact-specific, and upon such a finding, the court may proceed to terminate the unfit parent’s rights. This is a decision that is difficult to undo, and it may not be possible for the unfit parent to prove they are fit enough in the future to regain their parental rights.

What a Court Considers Important in Deciding Unfitness

The court will consider several factors in deciding whether a parent is unfit under the circumstances. These include:

History of Providing Appropriate Parental Care

If a parent is alleged to be unfit now, the court will look back and see if the parent was ever fit and capable of caring for the child. If so, this could suggest to the court that whatever challenges the parent is now facing are unusual and that the parent can provide adequate care. This, in turn, makes it less likely that the parent is unfit.

Permanency of the Situation

Whatever situation a parent is facing, the court will be interested to know how permanent the situation will likely be. If a temporary impairment, such as an illness or mental health episode, can be treated in a reasonable amount of time, a court is not likely to find the parent unfit.

On the other hand, if the situation affecting the parent is not likely to improve, a finding of unfitness might be warranted.

Intentionality of the Parent’s Actions

Courts view parents who intentionally endanger their children in a different light than they do parents whose actions unknowingly or tangentially threaten their children’s well-being.

A parent who deliberately places their child in a dangerous or compromising situation demonstrates a callousness that unintentional conduct does not. Therefore, intentional actions are more likely to lead to a finding of unfitness.

How and Why to Pursue a Finding of Unfitness Against the Other Parent

You and your child custody lawyer may decide to seek a finding of unfitness against the other parent because you believe they cannot make decisions that are in your child’s best interests. A finding of unfitness can be the first step toward:

Because you would be the party bringing a motion asking the court to find the other parent unfit, you bear the burden of presenting evidence and the testimony of witnesses to support this finding.

Johnson/Turner Is Your Minnesota Family Law Firm

Book a Quick Guidance Call with Johnson/Turner if you need a child custody lawyer to help you find the other parent unfit. Our knowledgeable child custody lawyers can help you gather evidence of unfitness and present a compelling case if doing so is necessary to protect your child.

Contact Johnson/Turner today to learn more about our services through a quick guidance call.


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