Stepparent in Pennsylvania? You May be Paying Child Support.

Liability for child support in Pennsylvania is a common concern for those going through a separation, whenever a child or children are involved.  It is clear that biological and adoptive parents are liable, but what about stepparents who did not adopt the child or children at issue?  Can they be liable for support as well?  On December 29, 2015, in the case of A.S. vs. I.S., the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (Middle District) answered this last question in the affirmative and held that when a stepparent takes affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent, the stepparent likewise assumes the corresponding parental obligations, inclusive of child support.

In the A.S. case, Mother had two twin sons born in 1998 and married Stepfather in 2005, when the children were 7 years old.  Mother and Stepfather resided with the children as a family unit until 2009, when Mother and Stepfather separated.  The children were 11 years old at that time, and the parties had an informal shared physical custody schedule upon separation.  Mother sought to relocate from Pennsylvania to California in 2012, 3 years later, and Stepfather filed an emergency custody petition, asserting that he stood in loco parent is to the children.  The trial court granted Stepfather’s petition and prohibited Mother from relocating with the children.  Thereafter, the parties engaged in protracted custody litigation with the trial court concluding that Stepfather stood in loco parentis to the children on February 13, 2013 and awarding the parties equal shared physical custody in July 2013.

During the custody proceedings, Mother initiated a child support action against Stepfather, but the support master dismissed Mother’s complaint on the basis that Stepfather had no duty to the children, as he was not their biological father.  The trial court confirmed the support master’s determination on the basis of established case law stating that a stepparent generally is not liable for child support following the dissolution of a marriage.  The established case law included conclusions such as: (i) in loco parentis status alone is insufficient to create a stepparent child support obligation; (ii) a stepparent’s signing an acknowledgement of paternity (knowing he is not the biological father and without having any sort of parent-child relationship with the child) is insufficient to create a stepparent child support obligation; and (iii) a stepparent’s seeking minimal visitation of a child is insufficient to create a stepparent child support obligation.  The Superior Court affirmed the trial’s court decision on the basis that Stepfather has not held himself out as the children’s father nor agreed to support the children financially; the Superior Court further noted that Mother did not pursue her legal right to child support from the children’s biological father.

Child Support Obligations May Be Triggered in Pennsylvania When a Stepparent Takes Affirmative Legal Action to Obtain Parental Rights

The Supreme Court initially reaffirmed the established line of case law and reiterated that in loco parentis status alone and/or reasonable acts to maintain a post-separation relationship with stepchildren are insufficient to obligate a stepparent to pay child support for those stepchildren.  The Supreme Court then proceeded to distinguish the A.S. case and explain that where a stepparent has taken sufficient affirmative legal steps to obtain parental rights, the stepparent should share in parental obligations, such as paying child support.  The Supreme Court specifically found that equity prohibited Stepfather from disavowing his parental status to avoid a child support obligation with respect to the children he “vigorously sought to parent.”  Having found Stepfather liable for child support in this case, the Supreme Court confirmed that the typical Pennsylvania child support guidelines would apply.

The above case serves as a reminder that biological parents are not the only ones who have parental rights and obligations.  Essentially, stepparents who serve in the same role as biological parents are entitled to custodial rights, but those come along with the corresponding financial responsibilities.  Stepparents cannot seek substantial custodial rights without being cognizant of the child support obligations that may arise, and biological parents should know that they can seek financial support from those who are entitled to comparable custodial rights to them.