A stepparent who takes affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent may be liable for child support, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in A.S. v. I.S., __ A.3d __ (No. 8 MAP 2015, filed December 29, 2015). I.S. (Mother) and A.S. (Stepfather) were married and resided with Mother’s biological twin sons from 2005 to 2009. Following their separation, the couple informally shared physical custody. In 2012, Stepfather filed a complaint for custody and an emergency petition to prevent Mother from relocating to California to begin a legal career. The trial court granted the emergency petition and allowed the custody case to proceed over Mother’s objection to Stepfather’s standing, holding that he stood in loco parentis to the children. A final custody order granted the parties shared legal and physical custody. Mother filed a contemporaneous complaint for child support against Stepfather, which the trial court denied on the basis of precedent establishing that a stepparent is generally not liable for child support following the dissolution of a marriage.
On Mother’s appeal, the Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that Stepfather did not owe a duty of support to the children because he had not held himself out as their father or agreed to support them financially. A.S. v. I.S., __ A.3d __ (No. 1563 EDA 2013, filed May 28, 2014) (memorandum decision). Mother sought discretionary review, which the Supreme Court granted.
In a 3-1 decision, the Supreme Court reversed and held that Stepfather was liable to Mother for child support. Writing for the majority, Justice Baer observed that, under the doctrine of paternity by estoppel, a nonparent who holds out a child as his or her own may be liable for child support. By contrast, the Court continued, the mere existence of a relationship between stepparent and child, i.e., in loco parentis status, is insufficient to establish a support obligation. In holding Stepfather liable for support, the Court explained that this is not the “typical case” of a stepparent who wanted to maintain a post-separation relationship with his stepchildren. Rather, Stepfather vigorously litigated and obtained full legal and physical custody rights, and prevented Mother from relocating with her biological children. Under those circumstances, the Court concluded, “
Chief Justice Saylor authored a dissenting opinion criticizing the majority for applying a “looser equitable construct” than that employed in prior cases invoking the doctrines of presumption of paternity and paternity by estoppel. He noted that, because Mother’s complaint for child support was dismissed at the pleading stage, there was no record on which to fully assess the equities of the case. Chief Justice Saylor also eschewed “the majority’s fashioning of a new doctrine of parentage.”