As a family law lawyer, I have had the opportunity to speak to many different people from many different types of families. There are all sorts of familial relationships and connections out there and, as our own Catherine Hyde has pointed out, the modern family is no longer what one might once have thought of as typical. In fact, it is relatively commonplace for the relationships within a household to include the relationship between a step-parent and a step-child. When that family splits up, or more specifically, when the two spouses split up, there is often an issue about whether the step-parent has a child support obligation for his or her non-biological children. I have found that it comes as a surprise, to some, that, in those circumstances, there may be an obligation to pay child support for children who are not biologically related.
Whether a step-parent has an obligation to pay child support is not determined by the relationship between the two spouses. It doesn’t really matter whether the spouses had a common law relationship or whether they chose to get married. What the courts are going to be looking at is whether the potential support payor voluntarily assumed the role of a parent during the time that the family functioned together as a unit. If he or she stood in the place of a parent, the children are entitled to rely on that “parent” as a continued source of financial security. An adult who voluntarily assumes a parental role, will not be permitted to escape a child support obligation by unilaterally ending his or her relationship with the child.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for determining whether a person has stood in the place of a parent and each case will depend on the facts that are specific to the particular family. The following factors are, however, generally considered:
- The child’s opinion about his or her relationship with the step-parent. Did the child accept the person as a parent (for example, by referring to the person as “Mom” or “Dad”) or did the child refuse to consider the person as a parental figure?
- The way in which the step-parent represented his or her relationship with the child to others. If the step-parent communicated, either through action or words, that he or she was responsible for the child as a parent, that will be certainly suggest the intention to assume a parental role.
- The extent, prior to the spouse’s separation, of the step-parent’s financial contribution towards the child.
- The child’s involvement with the step-parent’s extended family.
- The level of involvement and the degree to which the step-parent became involved in the child’s life. Did he or she attend parent teacher interviews? Participate in the child’s extracurricular activities? Discipline the child as a parent?
- The nature of the child’s relationship with the “other biological parent” (i.e. the parent with whom the step-parent did not have a relationship).
The above-listed factors are not determinative nor are they exhaustive but all are frequently considered when trying to ascertain whether there has been a voluntary assumption of a parental role.
The next stage of the analysis, assuming the non-biological parent has stood in the place of a parent, is to determine what amount of child support must be paid.
Generally speaking, a parent’s monthly child support obligation is the amount that is set out in the applicable table as well as the amount of that parent’s contribution towards any special or extraordinary expenses. The Department of Justice has an online Child Support Lookup to help figure out basic child support amounts according to the number of children eligible for support and the payor’s gross annual income. A non-biological parent’s basic monthly child support obligation may, however, differ from the tables. The Court has the discretion to order an amount that is “appropriate” having regard to (a) the amount payable pursuant to the guidelines; and (b) any other parent’s duty to support the child.
Ultimately, a non-biological parent’s “appropriate” support amount will depend on the particular circumstances that are invariably unique to each family. In some cases, a step-parent will be ordered to pay the full table amount of child support and, in other cases, the step-parent will be ordered to pay a lesser amount. Although the amount of the support obligation is difficult to predict, once an individual stands in the place of a parent for a non-biological child, he or she will not be permitted to cast aside parental responsibility simply because the relationship with the child’s parent has come to an end and there will likely be some amount of support payable for that child post-separation.