It goes without saying that noncustodial parents are liable for child support, but the law is still developing as to whether other people in parental roles—namely stepparents—would be liable as well. The recent matter of A.S. v. I.S. , 130 A.3d. 763 (Pa.2015), which the court believed was of first impression, has helped clarify the law on the subject.
In A.S., when the mother and the stepfather married, mother already had children from a previous relationship. During the course of their marriage, the stepfather developed a loving relationship with the children. Unfortunately, the marriage between the mother and stepfather broke down and was eventually dissolved in divorce.
Upon the separation of the parties, the stepfather immediately, and aggressively, pursued custody of the children. After extensive and protracted custody litigation, including a full trial, the court ruled that the stepfather stood in loco parentis to the children and, as a result, granted him shared legal and physical custody of the children on alternating weeks.
Once the stepfather was awarded custody, the mother took the opportunity to pursue him for child support for the children for whom he fought so hard to obtain custody of. In response, the stepfather argued that he ought not be liable for support because he is not the biological father, who incidentally is still alive and available to pursue for child support instead. The child support master, trial judge, and Superior Court all ruled in favor of the stepfather, in essence because he is not liable for support as he is not the biological father and merely provided the children with love and care. As a result, the mother appealed the matter to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
After a review of the above facts, the court surveyed the law, starting with the definition of “parent.” Unfortunately, the child support statute does not define “parent,” which led the parties to suggest using the Child Protective Services and Domestic Relations Code as a guide. The court rejected these suggestions, and observed that a modern “parent” encompasses more than simply biology. Instead, the court looks to see if a nonbiological parent “has taken affirmative steps to act as a legal parent so that he or she should be treated as a legal parent.”
The court noted that there is established precedent for a stepparent who holds a child out as his own legal child to have liability to pay child support for that child. In addition, there is also some precedent for finding a support obligation for someone who took affirmative steps to act as a parent.
Taking a broader view, the court explained that none of the factors identified above: standing in loco parentis, taking affirmative steps to act as a legal parent, and holding children out as one’s own are, taken alone, is sufficient to find someone liable for child support of a non-biological child. Furthermore, the court ruled that not even supporting the children during the marriage and acquiring visitation are necessarily determinative in finding someone liable for support.
Taking all of the above under consideration and applying it to the instant matter, the court found that stepfather did far more than take “affirmative steps,” but engaged in a—in the court’s words—”relentless pursuit” of the custody of the children. The court observed that “stepfather … haled a fit parent into court repeatedly litigating to achieve the same legal and physical custodial rights as would naturally accrue to any biological parent.” So, in the court’s view, the stepfather’s actions far exceeded merely wanting to maintain continuing post-separation contact, he wanted—and was granted—the right to become a full parent in every sense of the concept. As a result, stepfather has pursued all of the above: standing in loco parentis, taking affirmative steps to act as a legal parent, holding the children out as one’s own, supporting the children during the marriage, and acquiring post-separation custody.
In light of the fact that the stepfather is as invested in the children as described above, the court ruled that “equity prohibits stepfather from disavowing his parental status to avoid a support obligation to the children he so vigorously sought to parent.”
Therefore, yes, a stepparent can, in some circumstances, be liable for child support, but such liability is evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine if it can be demonstrated that a certain threshold of involvement with the child at issue is reached (as described above) to warrant entering a child support order.
Originally published in The Legal Intelligencer on January 3, 2017 and can be seen here.