Given that 16 percent of kids in America live in so-called “blended families,” it’s not uncommon for our Monmouth County divorce attorneys to be asked whether stepparents are ever responsible for child support payments for their stepchildren. The general rule is no, third parties aren’t responsible to pay New Jersey child support for children who aren’t theirs. However, there could be exceptions.
In particular, we’d be diving into whether the legal doctrine of in loco parentis is applicable. It can be applied in cases where someone has acted as a parent to the child, financially and emotionally.
Some factors the Court may consider:
- Is the child’s other biological parent out of the picture?
- Has the child known the stepparent since they were small? Has the relationship long been established as a parent-child one?
- Is the child emotionally/financially dependent on the stepparent?
If all of these boxes are checked, it’s probable that this is a case of in loco parentis. The family law Court could very well order the stepparent to pay child support. Of course, many stepparents are in favor of continuing to be a part of the child’s life, even if they’re divorcing the child’s parent. (Absent a formal adoption, their parenting time rights may be limited, though it’s certainly possible a plan could be worked out through mediation or the Courts, particularly if the two parties are fairly amicable and have a desire to continue co-parenting.)
On the flip side are stepparents who are stunned to learn they may be legally required to pay child support for a child who isn’t biologically theirs. For the New Jersey family law Judge, what it ultimately comes down to - always - is protection of the rights and best interests of the child. To lose a stepparent on whom a child has relied from a very young age can be detrimental and even traumatizing. That’s why in some situations, Courts will order a stepparent to continue financial support of the child until they’re emancipated.
A case of in loco parentis that is frequently referenced in cases involving stepparents is that of Miller v. Miller, a New Jersey Supreme Court case decided way back in 1984. In case, the wife had two daughters from a previous marriage who lived with them. Later when they divorced, the wife wanted the girls’ stepfather to pay child support. She asserted her husband had acted as the girls’ father, emotionally and financially. He’d even gone so far as to bar the girls seeing their biological father, who was in prison. When their biological father tried sending child support payments from prison, the stepfather tore them up. When the biological father was released from prison, their stepfather refused to allow visits. On the other side, the stepfather insisted he was only the stepfather, and that whatever legal relationship he had with the kids ended once the divorce was final. Although he said he loved them, he didn’t want to support them financially.
The Court ruled in favor of the mother, finding the stepfather legally responsible to pay child support for the girls. Central to the Court’s decision were the following facts:
- The stepfather had chosen to become the children’s financial supporter.
- He cut all ties between them and their biological father.
- The girls were emotionally attached and financially reliant on their stepfather.
All this said, there’s no guarantee the Court will mandate the financial responsibility of a stepparent, particularly as there is no statutory requirement for it (unless the stepparent has legally adopted the child). But if a stepparent takes on that role in every other respect during the marriage, the other parent will have a stronger case to argue for child support.
Contact our Monmouth County Child Support Lawyers at (732) 810-0034 to schedule an appointment.