Last month, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued a landmark decision that may affect whether, after separation and/or divorce, a stepparent is responsible to pay child support to a biological parent and, if so, how the child support amount will be determined.

We wrote earlier about the factors that influence whether a party such as a stepparent or grandparent may seek child custody or be compelled to pay child support. This most recent decision is an important update to Pennsylvania child support and child custody law.

The decision came in the case A.S. v. I.S., in which I.S. (the mother) had twin sons in 1998. The mother and the children’s biological father had a Serbian court order that governed both child custody and child support. The mother and A.S. (the stepfather) were married in 2005 in Serbia. The family moved to the United States in 2005; the couple separated in 2009.

The mother graduated from law school in May of 2012 and took the bar exam in California in July of 2012. She and the children intended to relocate to California in September of 2012. The stepfather filed a custody complaint and an emergency petition to halt their move. The trial court granted his emergency petition and also entered a temporary custody order granting primary physical custody of the twins to the mother, and partial physical custody to the stepfather.

At a hearing in February of 2013, the trial court determined that the stepfather stood in loco parentis to the children and, therefore, he had standing to seek custody of the children. Additionally, the trial court entered an interim order awarding the parties shared physical custody. At a subsequent hearing in April of 2013, the trial court entered a final custody order awarding the parties shared physical and legal custody of the children.

Soon thereafter, the mother filed a complaint for child support against the stepfather. At the initial support conference, the support master dismissed the complaint, stating that the stepfather had no duty to support the children because he is not their biological father. Prior to this case, in Pennsylvania, a stepparent had no duty to provide for their stepchildren after separation or divorce.

The trial court affirmed the support master's decision and the mother appealed the decision to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. She asked the court to decide whether the stepfather had a duty of child support and, if so, whether the amount should be determined by Pennsylvania's guidelines. The superior court affirmed the trial court's decision that the stepfather had no duty to pay child support.

The mother then sought review by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. She argued that, because the stepfather now had the same legal rights, he also should have the same obligation to support the children.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that if, for example, a stepparent held out his or her stepchild as his or her legal child, the stepparent was deemed by the court to be the legal parent. Similarly, if the stepparent signed an acknowledgement of paternity and treated the child as his own throughout the marriage and after separation, then he could be obligated to pay child support.

Alternatively, the court discussed other situations where a support obligation would not be imposed, such as the mere existence of a relationship between stepparent and child; an acknowledgment of paternity without evidence of a relationship between stepparent and child after separation; establishing in loco parentis standing in order to seek minimal visitation with a child; or where the stepparent helped to support the stepchild during the marriage.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated that "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."

Additionally, the court stated that a stepparent who owes a duty of support based on those rights equal to a biological parent would be obligated to pay an amount determined by the guidelines established by the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 1610.16-1.

The child support and child custody attorneys at Williams Family Law, P.C. stay informed on changes in the law and are ready to answer your questions regarding all things related to domestic relations including divorce, child custody, and child support. Call our office at 215-340-2207 to discuss your needs with any of our experienced and knowledgeable lawyers.