Do stepparents have to pay child support?

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “I am about to get married to a wonderful woman who has a three year old son. The father of the son is a deadbeat and has not had a job for years. I am wondering if I will have to pay child support for the child. I know we’ll stay together, but I am also wondering what happens if I am married to her for several years and we break up. Would I have to continue to pay child support?”

Overview of child support and step parenting

It is estimated that 40 to 50% of marriages of end in divorce, and unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for the standard of living to decline for one or both spouses following divorce. The state, however, has a vested interest in ensuring that children are properly cared for, which means that the noncustodial parent is often responsible for paying for child support.

Unfortunately, child support enforcement remains a problem, with each state having an agency that works to create incentives and penalties for parents who fail to pay their monthly child support payments.

Now, you mentioned that you are marrying a woman who has a child by another man. Ideally, this father would take his responsibility to care for his child seriously, get a job, and make the required child support payments each month. 

Unfortunately, whether it’s due to a lack of initiative, responsibility, or maybe even something he cannot control, such as a disability, it sounds like he is not providing adequate care and financial support for his child.

You asked whether you will be responsible for paying child support as a stepfather. In most cases, no, but there are certain times when you could be. Let’s review those specific instances. 

Stepparents may be required to pay child support under the following conditions:

  1. Stepparent adopts the child.

One of the most common reasons a stepparent would be required to pay child support is if they decided to legally adopt a child. Adoption severs all ties to the biological parent and allows the new parent to assume all legal, financial, social, physical, and emotional responsibility of rearing the child. This will include providing payments for the child until they reach the age of majority or they are emancipated.

If you decide to legally adopt the child but you and your spouse later divorce, you will be legally required to continue to provide financial support for the child and would be expected to continue the relationship.

  1. Child resides in the home and biological parent cannot provide support.

The second reason you might be required to pay child support to your stepchild is if they reside in your home, the child is under the age of 21, and the biological parents do not have enough income to ensure the child will not require public assistance.

Although this is not the law in all states, there are currently 20 states which have a statute which supports this notion. The statutes have also been upheld under legal scrutiny with courts generally arguing, “step-parents [should be] responsible if the support from the biological parents is insufficient to keep the child off public assistance.” 

  1. You have a written agreement to provide support to the child after the marriage.

Stepparents may also have to provide support to step children if they have executed a legal contract which states that they agree to provide support after a marriage.

  1. Under the doctrine of promissory estoppel. 

Finally, in some states, the courts have upheld the notion of promissory estoppel, which holds that if a stepparent presents himself as the child’s father, withholding support would be to the detriment of the child, and the child and mother relied on the support, then child support may be required even if the mother and father divorce.

This may seem unfair, but often courts decide that the children have been led to expect the stepparent to care for them. In fact, stepparents may often be more of a parent than a biological parent. If this is the case, divorce may not sever the emotional or financial bond, and the court may decide that the stepparent should continue to provide support even after a divorce.

Bottom line:

Becoming a stepparent is an important decision which may have financial, emotional, and legal obligations. If you are concerned about continued support in the case of a divorce you need to talk to a lawyer before the divorce and consider having some type of written agreement.

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