A stepfather who sought legal and physical custody of his ex-wife's children can be liable for child support, the state Supreme Court has ruled.
The Supreme Court ruled on a 3-1 vote last week in A.S. v. I.S. that when a stepparent takes aggressive legal steps toward assuming the same parental rights as the child's biological parent, the stepparent assumes parental obligations.
Justice Max Baer, who wrote the majority's opinion, said a parent's in loco parentis status — meaning he or she assumed parental obligations without going through legal adoption — doesn't create a child support obligation.
“Here, we have a stepfather who hauled a fit parent into court, repeatedly litigating to achieve the same legal and physical custodial rights as would naturally accrue to a biological parent,” Justice Baer said, adding “this is not the ‘typical case’ of a stepparent” who wants a post-separation relationship with the children.
The decision reversed both the trial court's ruling that the stepfather should not owe child support and the Superior Court's affirming decision.
Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor issued a dissenting opinion arguing there was an insufficient record in the case because the trial court dismissed the mother's complaint for child support at the pleadings stage.
According to Justice Baer, the mother, Irena Shiloh, had twins in Serbia in 1998. There, in 2005, she married Avraham Shiloh, the stepfather, and the two relocated to Pennsylvania, where they separated in 2009.
Justice Baer also noted Irena Shiloh graduated from law school in 2012 and took the California bar exam, with the intention of relocating to California with the twins.
The stepfather filed a complaint for custody and an emergency petition to prevent the mother's relocation, claiming that he stood in loco parentis. Along with granting the stepfather partial custody of the children, the court also prohibited the mother from leaving the jurisdiction with the children, Justice Baer said.
The mother then filed a complaint for child support against the stepfather, but the court dismissed her complaint, holding that the stepfather did not owe a child support duty because he was not the biological father, Justice Baer said.
Following the mother’s appeal, a Superior Court panel affirmed the decision, saying the stepfather had “not held himself out as their father or agreed to support the children financially.”
The mother appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Justice Baer said that, under the facts of the case at issue, the stepfather had taken sufficient affirmative steps to obtain legal rights, which created parental obligations.
Irena Shiloh, who represented herself pro se in the case, said the decision will affect a broad range of child support and custody cases, including disputes between same-sex couples and unmarried couples. She said the ruling could even be used to argue that a stepparent is entitled to child support from a biological parent.
Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or firstname.lastname@example.org.