On December 29, 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that a step-parent can be responsible for child support if that step-parent has taken aggressive legal steps to obtain the same custodial rights as a biological parent. A.S. v. I.S., No. 8 MAP 2015 (Pa. Dec. 9, 2015). The mere existence of a relationship between the step-parent and child and other reasonable acts to maintain a post-separation relationship with stepchildren remainsufficient to establish a duty to pay child support. Id. citing Commonwealth ex rel. McNutt v. McNutt, 344 Pa. Super. 321 (1985).
In A.S. v. I.S., Mother had twin sons in Serbia in 1998. In 2005, Mother married Stepfather and moved with the two children to Pennsylvania. Stepfather filed for divorce in 2010, and filed for custody of the children in 2012, seeking to prevent Mother’s relocation to California with the children. The trial court granted Stepfather’s emergency petition and prohibited Mother from relocating. The trial court found that Stepfather had put himself in a situation of a lawful parent by assuming the obligations of a parental relationship without going through the formality of legal adoption. The trial court entered a final custody order granting the parties shared legal and physical custody of the children.
A support master dismissed Mother’s support complaint because the Stepfather was not the biological father and, therefore, did not owe a duty to support the children. Mother filed exceptions to the master’s recommendation arguing that Stepfather should be treated as a biological parent for support purposes because he had sought and obtained legal and physical custodial rights as if he were a biological parent. The trial court affirmed the master’s dismissal of the support complaint and the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the trial court’s decision. Mother appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on the issue of whether a step-parent who obtained equal custodial rights should be liable for child support and, if so, whether the support amount should be calculated based on the child support guidelines.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court noted that the child support statute providing “parents are liable for the support of their children…” does not define “parent” or “child.” 23 Pa.C.S. §4321. However, other Pennsylvania cases have held that a “parent” for support purposes is not limited to biological or adoptive parents. Additionally, the Court cited to cases holding that a party may be prevented from denying his status as a father where he has held himself out as such. Id. citing Fish v. Behers, 559 Pa. 523 (1999); Hamilton v. Hamilton, 2002 Pa. Super. 72 (2002). When a step-parent commences litigation to achieve all the rights of parenthood at the cost of interfering with the rights of a fit parent, the same public policy is implicated: it is in the best interests of children to have stability and continuity in their parent-child relationships. “By holding a person such as stepfather liable for child support, we increase the likelihood that only individuals who are truly dedicated and intend to be a stable fixture in a child’s life will take the steps to litigate and obtain rights equal to those of the child’s parent.” Id. at *19.
Ultimately, the Court found in this case that “when a step-parent takes affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent, the step-parent likewise assumes parental obligations, such as the payment of child support.” Id. at *1. The novelty of this decision could have far-reaching effects on child support obligations.