The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently held that a stepfather was obligated to pay child support when he took affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent, which included seeking to prevent the biological mother from relocating to California with the children.
In A.S. v. I.S., 130 A.3d 763 (Pa. 2015), Mother gave birth to twin sons in Serbia in 1998. Mother later divorced the biological father and in 2005, she married Stepfather. Thereafter, Mother, Stepfather and the twins moved the family from Serbia to Pennsylvania. Mother never sought child support from the biological father; in fact, the biological father ceased all involvement in the twins’ lives in 2006.
Mother and Stepfather lived together with the twins in Pennsylvania until 2009, when Mother and Stepfather separated. Following separation, Mother and Stepfather followed an informal physical custody schedule. Stepfather filed for divorce in 2010.
In May 2012, Mother took the California bar examination, with the intent of relocating to California that September. Prior to Mother’s move, Stepfather filed an emergency petition to prevent mother from relocating, and a complaint for custody of the children, asserting he stood in loco parentis to the children. The trial court granted Stepfather’s emergency petition, preventing Mother from moving to California with the children. The court also entered an agreed custody order in which Mother had primary physical custody and Stepfather had partial physical custody every other weekend and on Wednesday evenings. The court later expanded Stepfather’s custodial time, following an interview with the children.
Four days after the trial court entered its order preventing Mother from relocating to California, Mother filed a complaint for child support against Stepfather. The support master dismissed Mother’s complaint, finding that Stepfather owed no duty to support the children because he is not their biological father. The trial court affirmed the master’s decision, relying on Pennsylvania precedential cases that hold that a stepparent is generally not liable for child support. The Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court, stating that Stepfather did not have to pay child support because “he has not held himself out as their father or agreed to support the children financially.”
Mother appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. She argued that Stepfather should be liable for child support because he voluntarily assumed the status of de facto parent when he aggressively litigated for custodial rights equal to that of a biological parent, and prevented mother from relocating to California. Stepfather, citing the general rule that stepparents do not owe a duty of child support to stepchildren, argued that merely providing love and care to Mother’s children does not create a support obligation.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with Mother, and held that because Stepfather had relentlessly pursued parental duties and repeatedly litigated to achieve the same legal and physical custodial rights as a biological parent, including interfering with the parental right of the biological Mother to relocate to California, Stepfather had a duty to pay child support. The court found that “under these facts,” Stepfather had taken sufficient affirmative legal steps to obtain parental rights and that he should share in parental obligations, such as paying child support.
In its opinion, the court emphasizes that it is not creating a new class of stepparent obligors. A stepparent who merely attempts to maintain a post-separation relationship with former spouse’s children is not assuming a duty of support. Additionally, a stepparent can support the children financially during the marriage without assuming a post-separation duty of support. While this holding is limited to the facts of the case, it is important to understand your rights and obligations as either a stepparent or a biological parent. A Blue Bell family attorney at Vetrano | Vetrano & Feinman can explain to you these rights and obligations and how they relate to custody and child support. For more information, call our family attorney at 610-265-4441.
Our experienced family lawyers take the time to fully understand the financial and emotional complexities that can be involved in separating two lives. We offer the patience and resources to effectively guide clients through a divorce, addressing all the challenges they may face in moving forward with their lives. To learn more about how we can help protect your rights and interests in a complex divorce, contact the Pennsylvania divorce attorneys at Vetrano | Vetrano & Feinman LLC.