Some Stepparents Have to Pay Child Support in Pennsylvania

Posted: February 23rd, 2016 by

Lisa Shapson, The Legal Intelligencer (online)

On Dec. 29, 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in A.S. v. I.S., 8 MAP 2015 (Pa. 2015), that when a stepparent takes affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent, the stepparent likewise assumes payment of child support.

I.S. (the mother) birthed twin sons in Serbia in 1998. Although the mother has a Serbian court order regarding custody and child support with her sons’ biological father, she never sought child support from the biological father, and the biological father has not been involved with his sons since 2006.

The mother married A.S. (the stepfather) in Serbia in 2005 and the family moved to Pennsylvania. In 2009, the mother and the stepfather separated, and the parties informally shared physical custody of her then 11-year-old boys. The stepfather filed a divorce complaint in Montgomery County on Jan. 4, 2010, and the parties were divorced Sept. 7, 2010.

On Aug. 27, 2012, the stepfather filed a custody complaint along with an emergency petition to prevent the mother’s relocation to California since she had completed the July 2012 California bar exam and planned to relocate with the children that September. The stepfather asserted in loco parentis standing and the trial court entered a temporary custody order awarding primary physical custody to the mother and partial physical custody to the stepfather every other weekend and every Wednesday evening. On Sept. 24, 2012, the trial court granted the stepfather’s emergency by prohibiting the mother’s relocation with her sons with continued partial physical custody for the stepfather.

As for the stepfather’s underlying custody complaint, the mother filed preliminary objections seeking to dismiss the complaint for lack of standing Jan. 23, 2013, as well as a motion for summary judgment Feb. 7, 2013. On Feb. 14, 2013, the trial court issued an order denying the mother’s objections, agreeing with the stepfather’s assertion that he stood in loco parentis to the children. After the trial judge interviewed the twin boys, she entered a second interim custody order for shared physical custody. In July 2013, a full custody hearing resulted in a final order granting the mother and stepfather shared legal and physical custody.

But that was far from the end of litigation between these parties. Back on Oct. 1, 2012, just days after the trial court’s order preventing the mother from relocating to California with the children, the mother filed a complaint for child support against the stepfather. On March 4, 2013, a Montgomery County support master held that the stepfather did not owe a duty of child support because he was not the children’s biological father and dismissed the mother’s complaint. The mother subsequently filed support exceptions, averring that stepfather should be treated as a biological parent in this case because (1) the stepfather litigated and obtained the same rights as a biological parent in custody; and (2) the stepfather successfully prevented the mother’s relocation. On May 22, 2013, the trial court affirmed the support master’s recommendation, citing Pennsylvania case law establishing that a stepparent is generally not liable for child support post-divorce, and found that the facts in this case did not warrant a finding that the stepfather owed a duty of support under law or equity.

On May 30, 2013, the mother filed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Superior Court on two support issues: (1) whether the stepfather owes a duty of support to her children; and (2) if the duty exists, whether the amount owed should be calculated under the Pennsylvania child support guidelines. A Superior Court panel found that the stepfather did not owe a duty of support because “he has not held himself out as their father or agreed to support the children financially.” The mother filed a petition for allowance of appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which was granted Jan. 29, 2015. The issues on appeal involve: (1) whether a former stepparent—who has pursued and established parental rights equal to biological parents and, per a court order, equally shares physical and legal custody with the biological parent—should be relieved of the duty to contribute to the children’s support; and (2) if the duty exists, whether the amount owed should be calculated under the Pennsylvania child support guidelines.

Between March and April 2015, both parties’ briefs to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that the stepfather had consensually obtained sole physical custody of the twins. On Feb. 10, 2015, the stepfather filed a child support complaint against the mother with the Montgomery County Domestic Relations Division. On May 1, 2015, the stepfather filed a separate petition with the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas to clarify his duty regarding payment of child support, continuing to assert that he does not owe a duty of support as a stepparent.

In its Dec. 29, 2015, opinion, the court noted that, in this jurisdiction, courts look at whether a nonparent has taken affirmative steps to act as a legal parent, and therefore, should be treated as a legal parent across the board. The court cited several situations where Pennsylvania courts have found a “parent” to encompass more than just the child’s biological or adoptive parents: (1) the doctrine of paternity by estoppel, “where a party assertively holds himself out as a child’s father, that party may be estopped from subsequently denying this status”; and (2) individuals “who took affirmative steps to act as a parent” under the general principles of equity.

Although the court reaffirmed several precedential cases where, despite the establishment of in loco parentis status, the support of children during the marriage or an acknowledgment of paternity, by themselves, are not sufficient to find a stepparent liable for support, it concluded that the stepfather in the instant case had taken the necessary affirmative steps to create an obligation for support and that there is no reason why the Pennsylvania child support guidelines should not apply. Here, the stepfather went beyond the typical stepparent who wanted to maintain a post-separation relationship with his twin stepsons because he has repeatedly litigated to achieve the same physical and legal custody as a biological parent and further asserted those rights to prevent the biological mother from relocating with her children. The court stated that, “Equity prohibits stepfather from disavowing his parental status to avoid a support obligation to the children he so vigorously sought to parent.”

The court further clarified that its decision does not create a new class of stepparent obligors, but, rather, acknowledged that when a stepparent offers more than gratuitous love and care and “instigates litigation to achieve all the rights of parenthood at the cost of interfering with the rights of a fit parent, then … it is in the best interests of children to have stability and continuity in their parent-child relationships.” The court also stated that its decision should encourage only individuals who intend to be stable fixtures in a child’s life to pursue legal rights equal to those of a biological parent when appropriate and/or necessary.

It is important to note that the court used the phrase “affirmative legal steps,” which clearly referred to the fact that the stepfather prevented the mother’s relocation after a very lengthy and expensive relocation trial. Nonetheless, would the court’s decision have been the same without the stepfather’s successful prevention of the mother’s relocation? Also, would the court have arrived at the same conclusion if the biological father was in the United States and a viable option for providing child support? The court clearly based its decision on the facts unique to this case, a distinction it made by specifically stating that its decision was limited to all cases where the stepparent takes affirmative legal steps to assume the same rights as a biological parent and that it was not, by its decision, imposing a broad brush rule that all stepparents should be obligated to pay child support for their stepchildren.

And, it’s still not over. The stepfather filed a petition for reargument with the court Jan. 11, which the mother answered Jan. 25. At this time, there is no word on whether the court will grant reargument. The twins are at or approaching age 18, when child support in Pennsylvania is no longer required as long as they have reached age 18 and graduated from high school.

So far, did the court get it right; and, if so, did the court get there the right way? Chief Justice Thomas Saylor issued the only dissenting opinion, raising several concerns with how the majority reached its opinion by creating a new doctrine of parentage where the legislature has not created one. While the legislature has allowed in loco parentis standing when it is in the best interest of the child in the custody statute, it has not allowed such a standing in child support. It will be interesting to see if the legislature picks up on this cue and modifies the statute. After all, isn’t taking on financial responsibility for children also in their best interests?

Reprinted with permission from the FEBRUARY 23, 2016 issue of THE LEGAL INTELLIGENCER (online). © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All Rights Reserved.

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