In PA, Stepfather Owes Child Support If Assumes The Rights of A Biological Parent
March 15, 2016
In a recent decision, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion departing from the long standing general principle that a stepparent does not owe a duty of support to his stepchildren. The court limited its holding to circumstances where a stepparent takes affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent. The Court maintains 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 children; however how the new precedent will be applied remains to be seen.
This support case involved an unusual underlying child custody fact pattern. Stepfather married the biological mother of twin seven-year-old boys. Around this same time frame, biological father ceased to have any involvement with the children. Biological mother and stepfather separated four years later when the boys were eleven years old. It is interesting to note that this was not a long marriage. Mother earned her law degree and took the California bar, planning to move to California from Pennsylvania. Stepfather filed a custody complaint and an emergency petition to block mother’s relocation.
The trial court found stepfather in loco parentis and granted the emergency petition, awarding stepfather with physical custody every other weekend and Wednesday evenings. After an interview with the children, the trial court awarded stepfather shared physical custody. After a full hearing, stepfather was awarded shared legal and physical custody. The opinion does not provide the reasoning for this unusual outcome but does note that mother is in fact a fit parent. A footnote to the opinion states that stepfather had since consensually obtained sole physical custody of the children.
Meanwhile, mother had filed for child support from stepfather when she still had primary physical custody. This filing was dismissed by the master after a conference. Mother filed exceptions. The trial court affirmed the dismissal of mother’s support complaint and the Superior Court affirmed the trial court. Stepfather also filed a support complaint against mother, asserting that his income should not be considered in the calculation because he has no duty to support the children.
The Supreme Court reversed the dismissal of mother’s support complaint, holding that when a stepparent takes affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent, the stepparent likewise assumes parental obligations, such as the payment of child support. The Court also holds that the typical support procedure should follow, including application of the guidelines found in the Rules of Civil Procedure and remands the case to the trial court for a calculation of child support that is based on both mother’s and stepfather’s incomes. As a practical matter, because stepfather currently has sole physical custody, mother will likely actually owe child support to him so it is a hollow victory for mother.
Our clients who wish to remain involved in their stepchildren’s lives after divorce should be aware of this concomitant potential obligation. Because of the limited holding, this decision should not impact stepparents who seek limited amounts of physical custody time, however it will likely impact those who oppose relocation or seek significant periods of custody time. This decision may also impact grandparents who seek significant custody time or who step up in the place of their own child against the other biological parent. This decision will likely increase litigation as parties test the limits placed on this holding and the custody masters and trial courts will be tasked with applying this new test on a case by case basis.
This article is informational only and not intended as legal advice. To schedule a consultation with a family law attorney, please call our office at 610-436-0100.