What is an Unfit Parent?

The bond between parent and child is one of the most substantial relationships that a person can form and this unique relationship comes with certain rights and responsibilities. Most parents meet and maintain a certain threshold for parenting practices that allows them to raise their children without interference. However, not everyone has the fitness necessary to be a parent. When this determination is made by a court, it can have significant legal consequences.

This article provides answers to the question "What is an unfit parent?" by exploring the following topics:

  • The typical process of an unfit parent determination;
  • The definition of "unfit parent";
  • The consequences of being declared an unfit parent;
  • Ways to challenge an unfit parent determination.

Example of an Unfit Parent Determination

When someone calls another person an "unfit parent" the image that generally comes forth is that of an abusive parent, but there are various examples of unfit parenting, including a parent with a history of substance abuse problems.

For example, perhaps a parent has been sober for years, but faced a recent relapse. They start missing visits with their child and, when they do make it, they show up drunk and leave the child unattended. The other parent can then present this information in court and based on the evidence, a court can declare the neglectful parent unfit and modify any existing custody or visitation orders. Eventually the court could also decide to terminate their parental rights. This is the most extreme result of being deemed an unfit parent.

The unfit parent designation generally comes up in the context of custody decisions that the court makes when parents can't agree. However, it can also be in the context of an accusation of neglect or abuse reported to authorities.

What is an Unfit Parent: Definitions

The term is a familiar one and often used between conflicting parents. However, when it comes to the definition of "unfit parent", the appropriate reply is that there's no universal definition; the term has a specific legal meaning that varies depending on the jurisdiction.

For instance, Nevada law defines an unfit parent as "any parent of a child who, by reason of the parent's fault or habit or conduct toward the child or other persons, fails to provide such child with proper care, guidance, and support."

Under Illinois law there is an extensive list of grounds of parental unfitness, including, but not limited to the following:

  • Abandonment of the child;
  • Desertion of the child;
  • Neglect;
  • Failure to maintain reasonable degree of interest, concern, or responsibility of child's welfare;
  • Extreme cruelty to the child;
  • Child abuse; and
  • Depravity.

Because the definition varies by state, it's important to consult the specific definition used in your state.

The Best Interests of the Child Standard

Regardless of a state's particular definition, addressing the issue of parental fitness is resolved by determining the best interests of the child, which is the standard for all decisions involving a child's well-being.

The court is required to intervene and must protect a child from an unfit parent. It has the authority to deny a parent visitation rights if the parent is an unfit person or that visiting with the parent is not in the child's best interests.

Consequences of Being an Unfit Parent

If the law considers you an unfit parent, then there are some serious consequences that can result, such as:

  • Denial of custody or transfer of custody to the other parent
  • Denial of or modification of visitation privileges
  • Termination of parental rights
  • If both parents are unfit, then the child could be adopted by another party.

Challenges to an Unfit Parent Determination

Many state laws help to ensure that a child gets to live in a safe environment where their emotional, financial, and psychological needs are satisfied; this aim surpasses the parent's right to have a relationship with their child. Although the child's rights are more important, parental rights are fundamental and any disruption to them isn't taken lightly.

Before a parent is deemed unfit, the party trying to show the parental unfitness (usually the other parent) will present supporting evidence. The parent will then have an opportunity to defend themselves with their own evidence, in the form of affidavits, testimony from character witnesses, and other forms of evidence that dispute the unfit accusations.

Dealing with an Unfit Parent Situation? Get Legal Help from an Attorney

Answering the important question of what is an unfit parent can be necessary when a child's welfare is in question. Whether you're facing accusations or you think that your co-parent might meet the definition, the best thing to do is to turn to an experienced family law attorney located near you for help with this complex situation.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified child custody attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution