These days, there are many different forms that the modern-day family can take. It’s not uncommon that children to grow up with divorced parents… Who then go on to re-partner with new people in longer-term relationships. As those second or subsequent relationships establish– giving rise to a “blended family” – the new partners usually become step-parents to the child. But the lines start to get blurred on whether the step-parent takes on any legal obligation to support them somewhere along the way. Especially if the relationship with the child’s biological parent later falls apart.
If you are in this scenario, here are some of the key considerations and legal questions to ask.
Step-Parents Meeting “Parent” Definition in the FLA
In Ontario, the answer begins by looking at the provincial Family Law Act (FLA). s. 1(1) defines a “parent” to include a person who has a “demonstrated settled intention to treat a child as a child of his or her own family”. Under s. 31 of the FLA, any person who meets that definition can be responsible for the child’s support. (To the extent the person is capable!) As long as the child is a minor or enrolled in a full time program of education.
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The Supreme Court of Canada in a case called Chartier v. Chartier, squarely address the test for what amounts to a “demonstrated settled intention”. A step-parent’s actions infer his or her intention. The most obvious one being the act of forming a new family that includes the child. Bolstered by evidence that:
· The child participates in the extended family in the same way that a biological child would;
· They (step-parent) provides for the child financially (depending on his or her ability to pay);
·He or she (step-parent) disciplines the child as a parent would;
· The step-parent represents to the child, the family, and the world – either explicitly or implicitly- that he or she is responsible for the child in the role of a parent.
In addition to these factors, the determination can also consider the nature or existence of the child’s relationship with the other biological parent.
Financial Duties Not Lightly Imposed
With all that said, the courts remain mindful not to impose long-term financial support obligations on a step-parent. (Who did not clearly show an intent to offer themselves in “substantial substitution for the natural parent’s role”.) For this reason, the finding of “parental status” on the part of a step-parent might not be sufficiently established. Especially in cases where:
· The biological other parent was still very involved the child.
· The length of relationship between the child’s parent and the step-parent was only a short one; and
· The child and the step-parent had a poor relationship prior to the separation with the biological parent.
These scenarios require a careful review; otherwise the courts run a risk that has been described this way:
The consequence of not having a sufficiently high threshold is that step-parents may be held to long-term financial obligations. For simply being a “nice person”, a friend to their new spouse’s child.
Biological Parents’ Contribution Not Directly Relevant
The relationship with the biological parent is at an end. The court has discerned that the step-parent has a demonstrated intent to treat the child as his or her own. The next step is to determine the amount of support that should be paid. This is also governed by several key principles, some of which may seem contradictory.
The first principle: any support payable by the step-parent goes toward increasing the total amount accruing to the child. Not to helping the biological parents meet the expense of their own support obligation. This means the court must first determine the two biological parents’ obligations. Only then do they determine the step-parent’s obligation. Keeping in mind the child’s standard of living and the objectives of the Child Support Guidelines. It is mainly when the biological parents are unable to provide a fair standard of support. Then the court may order the step-parent to pay child support. “o=On top of” any support provided by the two biological parents.
On the other hand, in a case called Chartier v. Chartier the Supreme Court of Canada came up with a conclusion. In determining a step-parent’s support duties, it is irrelevant whether the child is collecting support from both the biological parents and the step-parent at the same time. This means that merely because a step-parent is obliged to pay child support does not mean that the biological parents are somehow off-the-hook – and vice versa. The addition of a step-parent may simply mean that the child has three (rather than two) adults who are financially responsible for the child’s economic well-being.
Who Can Bring a Support Claim Against a Step-Parent?
In that same vein, courts have confirmed that a step-parent cannot be dragged into a support battle by the biological other parent. (Meaning the first spouse, i.e. the one normally obliged to pay child support.) Instead, it’s always the job of the custodial parent, from whom both the biological other parent and step-parent are now separated. They must bring a legal claim against the right parties as warranted. Essentially seeking a support contribution on the child’s behalf.
How Much Does the Step-Parent Pay?
When determining the overall amount of support entitled to the child, the court will separately assess the biological parents’ and step-parents’ respective contributions. After looking at the overall facts and arriving at a fair standard of support in all the circumstances. As always, the court has the Child Support Guidelines to refer to, but also has discretion and flexibility to depart from a rigid adherence to the Table amounts where justified.
In blended family situations, there are many complicated “moving parts” that can determine who has authority and financial responsibility of the children. These can last even after the blended family dissolves. Giving rise to long-term obligations from the step-parents involving significant amounts of money over many years.
If you are in this scenario and are wondering about your financial responsibilities as a step-parent, feel free to contact our office for tailored legal advice.