The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently handed down an opinion in case of A.S. v. I.S. regarding step-parent custody and support law. The court held that a step-parent can be held responsible for child support of their former spouse’s biological children when they take “affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent.”
In A.S., two children were born to Mother in Serbia in 1998. Mother and Stepfather married in Serbia in 2005 and subsequently moved to Pennsylvania. The parties separated in 2009 and shared custody of the children without any formal court order. Stepfather filed for divorce in 2010.
In 2012, Mother graduated from law school and took the California Bar, intending to relocate there with the children in September 2012. In August 2012, Stepfather filed a custody complaint and emergency custody petition to prevent Mother from relocating with the children to California. Mother filed for child support in September 2012 and her petition was dismissed. That decision was upheld by the lower court. Stepfather later obtained sole physical custody of the children by consent.
This case came before the Supreme Court for its decision on two issues:
1. Whether, under Pennsylvania law, a former stepparent who has pursed and established equal parental rights as the children’s natural parent–and per a court order, equally shares physical and legal custody with the natural parent– should be relieved of the duty to contribute to the children’s support.
2. If this Court finds that a duty of support lies with both parties who share physical and legal custody of the children, whether the amount of support owed is calculated by the statutorily imposted child support guidelines.
The Supreme Court went on to analyze the common law development of stepparent custody and support. A support obligation is not created under any of the following circumstances:
- The mere existence of a parent-child relationship (in loco parentis);
- Supporting the step children during the marriage;
- Signing an acknowledgment of paternity;
- Establishing in loco parentis standing to seek minimal custody.
Therefore, the Supreme Court 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 children.” In A.S., however, the court found a different situation, stating, “the instant case involves a far greater assumption, indeed, a relentless pursuit, of parental duties than that of a stepparent desiring a continuing relationship with a former spouse’s children.” Specifically, the Court was persuaded because “here, we have a stepparent who 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.”
The Court was careful to note that the holding was not intended to “create a new class of stepparent obligors and . . . comports with the line of cases that have held that in loco parentis standing alone is insufficient to hold a stepparent liable for support.” However, when a stepparent “does substantially more than offer gratuitous love and care for his stepchildren, when he instigates litigation to achieve all the rights of a fit parent, then the same public policy attendant to the doctrine of paternity by estoppel is implicated.”
If you are a stepparent with custody and/or support questions, call 610-892-3877 or click for assistance from our experienced legal team.