Child Support Obligations of Stepparents and other Third Parties in New Jersey

(in loco parentis)

In a world where second and third marriages are common, the question often arises whether a stepparent can be obligated to pay child support for a stepchild in the event of a divorce in New Jersey. The answer to this question is less straightforward than one might expect, depending on the specific circumstances of each case.

Of course, the primary factor in awarding child support is to ensure the financial well being of the child in question. In New Jersey, the primary source of financial support for children should be the natural parents. However, there are some situations where a stepparent may put his or herself in such a position that he or she can become obligated to the stepchild.

So the short answer to the question of whether a stepparent is obligated to pay child support for a stepchild in the state of New Jersey is most likely no, but there are some exceptions.

General Rule for Child Support by Stepparents In New Jersey – in loco parentis

The support of a child is generally the requirement of the natural parents. Regarding stepparents, the New Jersey Supreme Court has stated, “New Jersey has no statutory requirement imposing a duty of support on a stepparent for his or her spouse's children by a former marriage.” The court went on to say that a stepparent could voluntarily assume a financial support role in the child’s life, which is called ‘in loco parentis’ in legal jargon. The in loco parentis relationship exists only for as long as the parties wish for it to exist, however, so when a stepparent divorces the natural parent, the in loco parentis relationship ends and any obligation of support the stepparent has assumed terminates.

Stepparent Becomes Financially Obligated to a Stepchild - Miller v. Miller, 478 A.2d 351 (N.J. Sup. Ct. 1984).

In the New Jersey Supreme Court case of Miller v. Miller, the court held that a stepparent may be obligated to support a stepchild after a divorce under the doctrine of ‘equitable estoppel’. Equitable estoppel is a legal principle that occurs when one party relies on a promise made by another party to his or her detriment.

In Miller, a mother asked the court to award child support for her children who were born from a prior marriage from her second husband when they divorced. The biological father had previously supported the children until he went to prison. After he was released from prison the biological father again attempted to support his children by sending checks, which the stepfather ripped up. The stepfather also interfered with the children’s ability to visit their biological father. During the marriage the stepfather financially supported the children, even declaring them as his dependents on his tax returns. Aside from financial support, the stepfather also played a key role in the emotional lives of the children, even taking on his last name.

The facts of this case led the New Jersey Supreme Court to hold that “in appropriate cases, the doctrine of equitable estoppel may be invoked to impose on a stepparent the duty to support a stepchild after a divorce from the child's natural parent.” This means that in certain cases where the stepparent assumes the responsibility as a parent for the child and the child relies on that assumption to his or her detriment, the stepparent may be required to pay child support to his or her stepchild.

If you have any questions about child support obligations of stepparents, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen at (201) 845-7400 for a free consultation.

Source

Miller v. Miller , 478 A.2d 351 (N.J. Sup. Ct. 1984).

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