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The Utah Supreme Court has given an unwed father another chance to contest the adoption of his daughter, ruling that a notice telling the man what he needed to do to preserve his parental rights did not include required information.
The 5-0 decision says that under the state's Prebirth Notice Statute, the birth father must be told that he will lose certain rights if he fails to complete specific steps within 30 days of getting notice, including acknowledging paternity and filing an affidavit in court that details child care plans.
However, the notice received by Phillip J. James who said he had intended to raise the child with the mother said he "may" lose all rights to his child, the court noted.
"The Legislature perhaps in recognition that words like 'will lose' might light a fire that words like 'may lose' might not requires a prebirth notice to inform a father that he will lose the statutorily enumerated rights if he fails to comply with the Statute," Justice John Pearce wrote for the court.
The decision overturns a ruling by 2nd District Judge Robert Dale that said James failed to take the actions needed to preserve his ability to contest the adoption of his child, who is referred to as Baby Q in court documents.
According to court documents, James was served the prebirth notice from the mother on July 11, 2014. He eventually completed the required steps but not until after the 30-day period ended.
The mother gave birth by induced delivery on Sept. 5, 2014, four days earlier than originally scheduled, and without telling James relinquished her parental rights and surrendered the girl to adoptive parents a week later, court documents say.
After his motion to intervene in the adoption proceedings was denied by Dale, James appealed to the Supreme Court. At oral arguments, Julie Nelson, a lawyer for the adoptive parents, argued the notice complied with the law and conveyed all the necessary information.
The justices sided with James and entered an order reversing the 2nd District denial on April 7, then issued the ruling explaining their rationale on Friday.
"Because the Notice did not contain all of the information the Statute mandates," the ruling says, "the thirty-day clock did not begin to tick and James's failure to comply within that time frame did not deprive him of his ability to contest Child's adoption."
The ruling sends the case back to 2nd District Court.