Can a stepparent be required to pay child support?
UPDATED: February 20, 2013
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Step-parent child support was not required according to traditional common law rules, however, many states have since passed statutes requiring step-parent support. Therefore, whether step-parent support during marriage or step-parent support after marriage is required may depend on the state.
Step-Parent Support During Marriage
As a general matter, the duty to support a child belongs to his or her parents. As such, the income of a step-parent is usually not factored in when calculating the child support obligation of the non-custodial parent. However, the courts also recognize that step-parents do have a relationship with their stepchildren by virtue of the marriage to the mother or father of the child.
In recognition of the relationship between step-parents and step-children that brings about an obligation of sorts, there are twenty states that have statutes requiring step-parents to provide support for their step-children while the step-child is living in the same household. In some cases, those requirements do not kick in unless the custodial parents become unable to support the child. For example, under the Delaware Annotated Code Section 13, Chapter 5 section 501(b): "Where the parents are unable to provide a minor child's minimum needs, a step-parent or a person who cohabits in the relationship of husband and wife with the parent of a minor child shall be under a duty to provide those needs. Such duty shall exist only while the child makes residence with such step-parent or person and the marriage or cohabitation continues."
Other states that have statutes requiring a step-parent to support a step-child during the marriage include: Iowa, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Maine, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont.
Step-Parent Child Support After Divorce
Step-parent child support is usually not an obligation for step-parents unless the step-parent adopts the child or has signed a Marital Settlement Agreement agreeing to pay child support to the other parent for the step-child. This is true even in states that have statutes requiring step-parent support during the marriage.
There is an exception, however. Depending upon the jurisdiction that the step-parent is in, the custodial parent may be successful in seeking child support from the step-parent under the Estoppel Doctrine. The Estoppel Doctrine prevents a step-parent from taking a different position with regard to the child or reneging on a promise if the child would be financially harmed by the change. Three conditions must be met in order for the doctrine to apply. The first condition is Representation, which is illustrated when the step-parent assumes the role of the child's parent and provides financial support for the child. The second condition is Detriment, which is demonstrated by a step-parent who hinders the child's relationship with the biological parent and severs the child’s ability to get financial support from that parent. The third condition is Reliance, whereby the child relies upon the financial support of the step-parent. If a divorce occurs and all three conditions exist, the court may rule that the step-parent is responsible for step-parent child support.
Because laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, if you have concerns about your rights or obligations under the law, it is always in your best interests to consult with a lawyer for help with understanding the rules in your state.