JANUARY 13, 2003 VOLUME 10, NUMBER 28
As American families become more mobile and previously unusual family relationships become more common, grandparents are increasingly likely to be involved in raising their grandchildren. This has led to an increase in the legal problems faced by seniors, especially when family members become less cooperative with one another. The unusual legal problem faced by Gerhard and Nanett Wunderlich of Arkansas provides one example of what can go wrong.
Mr. and Mrs. Wunderlich’s daughter Rebecca was married to Roy Duncan for two years. “W.W.” (the court describes her only by her initials) was born to the couple six weeks before they separated. In the divorce Mr. Duncan was ordered to pay $200/month in child support; Rebecca and W.W. moved in with the Wunderlichs.
As happens too often, Mr. Duncan failed to make his child support payments. Since Rebecca was receiving welfare the state Office of Child Support Enforcement sued him for unpaid child support. Mr. Duncan responded by filing a petition to enforce visitation with his daughter, whom he had never seen, and Rebecca and her parents became very concerned about the possibility that he might become involved in his daughter’s life.
Mr. and Mrs. Wunderlich proposed that they could adopt W.W., thereby cutting off Mr. Duncan’s parental rights. Although Rebecca later insisted that she was reluctant to go along with this plan, she agreed after her mother assured her that the adoption would be on paper only, and that she would continue to be W.W.’s real mother. Mr. Duncan signed the paperwork giving up any rights in return for a waiver of the child support claim against him, and Rebecca and W.W. continued to live with her parents.
Then Rebecca married Joe Alexander, and W.W. went to live with the newlyweds. When she and her parents quarreled about money, Mr. and Mrs. Wunderlich forcibly took W.W. back into their home and refused to allow the new Mrs. Alexander to visit her daughter.
Rebecca Alexander filed a petition to set aside the adoption, saying that it had been a fraud in the first place. Her parents pointed out that state law permits challenges to adoptions only in the first year after they are finalized.
By a 5-4 vote the Arkansas Court of Appeals decided that it was permissible to void the adoption and return W.W. to her mother’s care and custody. The Wunderlichs had never actually “taken custody” of W.W. in the first place, decided the appellate court, so the one-year limitation should not apply. Wunderlich v. Alexander, December 18, 2002.