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Are New Jersey Stepparents Obligated to Pay Child Support After Divorce?
Here’s what you need to know about stepparent rights in New Jersey.
One of the most unusual circumstances seen by family courts involves blended families. Many new spouses experience Brady Bunch vibes when they bring their children together with their partner’s, so the kids were “his, hers, and ours.” But what happens when the relationships behind those blended families don’t work out and you’re heading for divorce?
Many stepparents hope to continue a relationship with their stepchildren after their split from the biological parent. However, their legal and financial obligations may not be clear. Here’s what you need to know about stepparent rights in New Jersey.
Are Stepparents Obligated to Pay Child Support After Divorcing the Biological Parent?
There’s a legal term used to inform this question called “in loco parentis.” This is Latin for “in the place of a parent,” which refers to those who act in lieu of a parent, including parents and even teachers during the school day. If you’re a stepparent who has assumed the role of the parent for your stepchild, then you may be required to pay child support after a divorce.
Understanding the Legal Term ‘In Loco Parentis’
Let’s go a little deeper into the term “in loco parentis.” The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that there’s no legal precedent that requires a “duty of support on a stepparent for his or her spouse’s children by a former marriage.”
Essentially, while the couple is married and the stepparent is acting “in place” of the child’s biological parent, he or she will support that child. But once the marriage has ended, the stepparent is no longer “in place of” the child’s parent and in loco parentis no longer applies to the situation.
In most New Jersey cases, a stepparent won’t be required to pay child support for children who aren’t their biological children, such as stepchildren. However, as with many cases, there can always be exceptions.
As we’ve said, in loco parentis is applied when the stepparent has acted as a parent to their stepchild. That can mean financially, emotionally, or both. There’s no guarantee that a judge will order support based on these exceptions.
But the court can consider child support based on a few other considerations:
- Whether or not the stepparent has been acting in place of the biological parent in the child’s life;
- Whether or not the child is dependent on the stepparent (either emotionally or financially); and
- Whether or not the relationship between stepparent and child has been a long one (such as, has the child thought of the stepparent as their parent from infancy or early childhood).
A Stepparent Could Be Financially Obligated: The Case of Miller v. Miller
One significant supreme court case in New Jersey was that of Miller v. Miller. In this case, the mother asked the court for child support for her children. Her husband wasn’t their biological parent, but had established a longstanding relationship with the children as their stepparent.
In this case, the court ruled in favor of the mother under the principle of “equitable estoppel.” This means that one party hasn’t acted fairly in their dealings with the other. In this case, the stepfather had taken some actions that demonstrated he was assuming full parental control of the children and the court agreed that he should have to pay support. In this case:
- The stepfather restricted the children from seeing their biological father when he was released from prison.
- When the biological father was released from prison and began paying child support, the stepfather ripped up the checks.
- The stepfather changed the last names of the children to match his own.
- The stepfather provided financial support, even going so far as to declare the children as his dependents on his income tax.
Basically, the court ruled that the stepfather acted in such a way that he assumed the full role of parent, so that the mother assumed he was acting as such to her detriment. Therefore, he was expected to pay child support after the divorce.
Are You Still Considered a ‘Stepparent’ After Divorce?
From a legal point of view, you aren’t a stepparent after a divorce. You have no parental rights, such as the right to visitation, nor do you have any legal or financial responsibilities to your stepchild.
Short of adopting the children, your legal role ends with the divorce. However, there is – and often should be – an emotional bond with a child that goes beyond divorce. Just because the relationship didn’t work out between the stepparent and biological parent, the child shouldn’t be left wanting the emotional support that comes from a caring adult.
Young children, especially, shouldn’t be cut out completely if they’ve formed an emotional bond with the stepparent. Therefore, the divorcing couple may want to consider some way to allow the stepparent to continue a connection with the child.
Stepparents Have a Special Connection
Stepping into the role of a parent when a child isn’t biologically yours is a special act of love and it creates a bond that can last a lifetime. However, should the bond be broken when a couple divorces, it’s important to know your rights under the law. If you’re a stepparent who’s being asked to pay child support, or if you’re a biological parent seeking support from the stepparent, then it’s important to contact an experienced family law attorney in New Jersey to know your full rights in your unique situation.
Contact the Experienced Family Law Attorneys at Smedley Law Group in Woodbury, NJ Today
If you’re thinking about filing for divorce, you’ll also most likely be dealing with another matter like child custody, child support, or division of assets, so you’ll need to speak with a qualified attorney. The New Jersey family law attorneys at Smedley Law Group represent clients throughout the state, including West Deptford, Woodbury Heights, Runnemede, and Westville. We understand how challenging this time can be for you, which is why we will fight hard to protect your interests, and the interests of your loved ones, throughout the legal process. Call us at (856) 251-0800 or fill out our confidential contact form to schedule a consultation. We have an office conveniently located at 750 Cooper Street, Woodbury, NJ 08096.
The articles on this blog are for informative purposes only and are no substitute for legal advice or an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact our law firm directly.