Appeal from Circuit Court of Adams County No. 96F44 Honorable Scott H. Walden, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cook
In March 1996, the trial court ordered respondent, Everett L. Warner, to pay child support for his two children. On October 24, 2002, his parental rights as to those children were terminated. On May 6, 2005, the court denied Warner's petition to vacate the child-support order. He appeals. Because section 17 of the Adoption Act relieves natural parents whose parental rights have been terminated of parental responsibility for their child (750 ILCS 50/17 (West 2004)), we reverse.
On February 29, 1996, the Illinois Department of Public Aid, now known as the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (Department), filed a petition on Debbie Stover's behalf to establish Everett Warner as the father of her children, C.S. (born December 12, 1993) and B.S. (born August 18, 1995). On March 28, 1996, the trial court found Warner to be the father of the children and ordered that he pay child support in the amount of $46.13 per week. The Department petitioned the court for modification of the child-support order, and on October 7, 1999, the court increased Warner's support obligation to $120 every two weeks. In a separate proceeding, Warner's and Stover's parental rights were terminated on October 24, 2002.
On February 2, 2005, Warner filed a pro se motion to terminate his child-support obligation and recover payments retroactive to October 24, 2002. At a hearing on February 10, 2005, the Department indicated it would oppose any motion to cease support until the children were adopted and the State was no longer responsible for their support. The trial court continued the matter to allow Warner time to consult an attorney.
On March 3, 2005, Warner's attorney filed a petition to vacate the child-support order based upon section 17 of the Adoption Act, which provides:
"After either the entry of an order termin- ating parental rights or the entry of a judgment of adoption, the natural parents of a child sought to be adopted shall be relieved of all parental responsibility for such child and shall be deprived of all legal rights as respects the child ***." 750 ILCS 50/17 (West 2004).
At the March 31, 2005, hearing on the petition, Warner and the Department stipulated, in relevant part, that (1) Warner continued to pay child support of $120 every two weeks even after his parental rights were terminated, (2) the children had been in the custody and guardianship of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) since before the date of termination, and (3) the State had received Warner's child- support payments since the date of termination. The trial court also took judicial notice of the order in the cases terminating Warner's parental rights and the most recent order in those cases showing that the goal for the children remained adoption. The only issue before the court was whether section 17 of the Adoption Act (750 ILCS 50/17 (West 2004)) relieved Warner of his obligation to pay child support.
On May 6, 2005, the trial court entered an order denying Warner's petition pursuant to the "language in Illinois Supreme Court case In re M.M., 156 Ill. 2d 53, 610 N.E.2d 702 (1993)." This appeal followed.
Warner's sole contention on appeal is that section 17 of the Adoption Act requires that the trial court terminate his child-support obligation and that the court erred when, relying on M.M., it refused to do so. In response, the Department first claims that section 17 is inapplicable because the children are not in the process of being adopted. Alternatively, the Department argues that the Illinois Supreme Court has determined that section 17 does not eliminate a natural parent's common-law duty to support a child in times of need regardless of whether parental termination or adoption has severed other parental responsibilities and rights. Because both the applicability of section 17 of the Adoption Act and whether Warner owes his children a common-law duty of residual support present questions of law, our review is de novo. See In re Marriage of Rogers, 213 Ill. 2d 129, 135-36, 820 N.E.2d 386, 389-90 (2004).
A. Applicability of Section 17
Section 17 of the Adoption Act provides that "the natural parents of a child sought to be adopted" are relieved of parental responsibility "[a]fter either the entry of an order terminating parental rights or the entry of a judgment of adoption." 750 ILCS 50/17 (West 2004). The Department urges that section 17 does not relieve Warner of his responsibility to pay child support because he is not the natural parent of "a child sought ...