Pennsylvania Supreme Court issues interesting decision regarding step parents

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court just issued an interesting decision in a case in which all step parents should take notice. The Court, in a case called A.S v. I.S, held that a stepfather who had brought an action for shared custody of his former stepchild, and won the case, must also be held legally obligated to pay child support.

I.S.gave birth to two sons while residing in Serbia. Seven years later she married A.S in the United States and they resided together in Pennsylvania and raised the children. In 2009 they separated and, by agreement, shared physical custody of the children. A year later I.S. made a decision to move to California after receiving her law degree and passing the California Bar exam. A.S. filed for divorce and sought custody of the children.

A.S. based his claim on the principle that he stood in loco parentis to the children, meaning that the step parent acted as a “de facto” parent of the child(ren) and provided important parental functions that would normally be provided by a legal parent and which were important to the child(ren)’s upbringing and development. The doctrine originally gained effect in cases involving lesbian co-parents who participated in every phase of the child’s upbringing and development, but where there had been no adoption. After a trial the lower court issued an order granting A.S. shared physical and legal custody of the children and an order preventing I.S. from removing the children from Pennsylvania without the permission of the court. I.S. then brought an action seeking child support from A.S.

The lower court dismissed the complaint by I.S. for child support and the case went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court solely on the question of child support, not the shared custody issue. The Court noted that “we have a stepfather who haled a fit parent into court, repeatedly litigating to achieve the same legal and physical custody rights as would naturally accrue to any biological parent”. The Court went on to hold, “Equity prohibits stepfather from disavowing his parental status to avoid a support obligation to the children he so vigorously sought to parent”. The Court reasoned, “when a stepparent does substantially more than offer gratuitous love and care for his stepchildren, when he institutes litigation to achieve all the rights of parenthood at the cost of interfering with the rights of a fit parent, the same public policy attendant to the doctrine of paternity by estoppel is implicated: that it is in the best interest of children to have stability and continuity in their parent-child relationships.

To date, the Massachusetts courts have not ruled on this exact issue, although they have ruled in favor of paternity by estoppel or de facto parent rights. Most of the Massachusetts cases have dealt with visitation issues involving the de facto parent, such as cases where the parents are ending their relationship and one of the parents is the biological parent of the child and the other parent is not, but has had a substantial, beneficial, long term relationship with the child(ren). In these cases the court has looked to the best interest of the child and ordered visitation for the non-legal parent on the finding that it would be detrimental to the child to sever this relationship.

However, in one case, C.P. v. R.S, the Court ordered legal and physical custody to the stepfather of the child and visitation for the biological father. The Court found that the stepfather had “been solely responsible for [the child] and has assumed all parental functions” and that the biological father had no contact with the child for the previous three years. In finding that transferring custody of the child from the stepfather to the biological father would be detrimental to the child the Court noted, ‘We defend the right of a parent to the custody of his or her child, yet we recognize that the right will not be enforced if it results in harm to the child.

The bottom line is that a de facto parent, who has substantially contributed to the well being and support of his/her stepchild, has standing to seek to continue that relationship if the stepparent’s relationship with the biological parent falters. But the flip side of that coin is if you want all of the rights and privileges of being a parent, be prepared to face the likelihood of being held to the obligations of parenthood. Additionally, with the changing landscape of what constitutes a “family” it would not be surprising to see the Massachusetts courts follow the lead of the Pennsylvania court in the future.