Do You Have to Support Your Step-Children?
The dissolution of a marriage is complicated enough in the best of times, but in this era of “blended families,” the fallout from the end of a second (or subsequent) marriage can be even more complicated when there are step-children involved. A common question is whether a spouse has any obligation to support any stepchildren that were brought into the relationship/family unit by the other parent.
The short answer is: “it depends.”
The federal Divorce Act requires spouses to pay support for any “children of the marriage.” That term is further expressly defined by the Act to include “any child for whom they both stand in the place of parents” as well as “any child of whom one is the parent and for whom the other stands in the place of a parent.” This means that a person who meets the test for “standing in the place of a parent” can be liable for support, even though he or she has no biological connection to the child.
Naturally, the question of whether a spouse meets this test vis-à-vis the other spouse’s child will depend on the facts. Furthermore, those facts can give rise to some surprising results: for example in Ontario, a spouse who has not cohabited with the parent of his or her step-children long enough to pay spousal support can still be liable for support for the step-children if found to “stand in the place of” their parent.
Over the years, Canadian courts have had to address some interesting scenarios involving child support for step-children. For example:
In 1999 the Supreme Court of Canada in a case called Chartier v. Chartier determined that a spouse’s attempt to terminate the relationship with a step-child does not necessarily absolve him or her from paying child support, if the relevant test for “standing in the place of a parent” is otherwise met.
In Lambton v. Lambton, the husband was ordered to pay child support in the lump-sum amount of $20,000 in connection with his step-son, despite the fact that the husband had had no contact with the boy since his separation with the mother. The court rationalized that if the husband and the boy’s mother had divorced, the husband would probably have made a contribution towards his post-secondary education.
In Brown v. Laurin, the two children had gone to live with their natural father; still, the step-father was ordered to pay child support in relation to their care.
In contrast, in Apthorp v. Shearing the husband’s obligation to support his 19-year old step-daughter was terminated when she went to live with her biological father for 18 months after the husband and the girls’ mother separated. The girl had entirely rejected the husband; moreover an earlier court order had stipulated that the husband’s support obligation would end if the step-daughter stopped living with her mother.
As these cases illustrate, different factual circumstances can give rise to different outcomes. It is therefore important to get quality legal advice in these kinds of cases.
For the full text of the cited decisions, see:
Chartier v. Chartier,  1 S.C.R. 242 http://scc.lexum.org/en/1999/1999scr1-242/1999scr1-242.html
Brown v. Laurin,  O.J. No. 5233 (S.C.J.)
Lambton v. Lambton (2004), 2004 CarswellBC 2606 (B.C. S.C.); additional reasons at (2004), 2004 CarswellOnt 3062 (B.C. S.C.)
Apthorp v. Shearing, 1998 CanLII 14894 (ON SC), (1998) 42 R.F.L. (4th) 287 (S.C.J.) http://canlii.ca/t/1wb6z
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