The relationship between a child and their stepparent can be as important and meaningful as that of a child and their biological parent. Blended family structures are common nowadays, and stepmothers and stepfathers often play crucial roles in stabilizing blended families and stepchildren.
The blended family is also susceptible to ending in divorce and while it may feel fair and right, a stepparent has no legal duty to pay child support.
Stepparent role does not create legal duty of child support
In Florida, a divorce in which one or both spouses acted as stepparents to the other’s children does not include a right to child support. This is so even if the relationship was in every way like one of a natural parent and child – and even if the stepparent voluntarily provided financial support to the child during the marriage.
Many stepparents legally adopt their stepchildren. Whether legal parenthood is based on biology or on adoption, that legal parent-child relationship does establish the duty of parental support, and the court can order the former stepparent – now legal parent – to pay child support, when otherwise appropriate.
Child support by agreement
A stepparent could sign a legal contract that they will voluntarily provide financial support to stepchildren after divorcing their natural parent. It is good for the stepparent and parent/spouse to carefully negotiate and draft such a written agreement, so the intentions of the parties are clear and enforceable.
It is possible that a court could find that a stepparent created an implied contract to pay child support through their actions or words. However, one Florida court in Hippen v. Hippen said that just because a stepfather claimed his stepchildren as dependents during the marriage to obtain military housing and for income taxes did not through those actions create an implied contract that he would pay child support upon divorce.
A few Florida cases have said that a stepparent might develop a duty to pay child support through a legal theory called equitable estoppel or equitable adoption. The stepparents in those cases went even farther than the stepfather in Hippen by falsely holding themselves out to their stepchildren and the community as the natural father through such acts as signing the birth certificate, involving the child in family religious rites, naming the child as an heir or insurance beneficiary, giving the child a family name and similar acts.
The judge looks at whether the child relied to its detriment on the actions of the stepparent so that it would be grossly unfair to deny child support. Specifically, courts have considered it enough to order child support based on the stepchild’s psychological harm in learning that the person who always told them they were a natural parent was not. Courts also note the unfairness of the natural parent giving up the right to sue the other biological parent for paternity and support in reliance on the stepparent’s promise to support and raise the child as their own.