Monthly child support payments from one parent to the other are one of the most common results of a separation. Over time, separated parents often re-couple, and in-law relationships can become part of the fabric of a blended family. But what happens if the parents of the blended family separate? Is a step-parent required to pay child support for a stepson? In some cases, the answer is yes.
That’s the outcome of a recent twelve-day trial before Justice Dale Fitzpatrick of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, who was asked to decide whether a stepfather had a duty to support two stepchildren. The trial focused almost entirely on the binary issue of whether the stepfather should pay child support. The length of the trial was very clear: determining the support obligation of a step-parent or a subsequent parent is much more complex than determining the obligation of a first parent.
In the case before Judge Fitzpatrick, the parties only lived together for 22 months, of which they were married for 17 months. The husband had no children from a previous relationship. The wife had two children, aged 9 and 11 at the time of separation. The children’s biological father had a fractured relationship with the children, and when the parties started living together, the children did not see their biological father at all. The biological father was on welfare and paying child support of $94 a month.
Following the separation, the wife demanded alimony from the husband. The husband disagreed. A bitter trial ensued. To determine whether the husband owed child support, Judge Fitzpatrick had to carefully analyze the relationship between the husband and the two children. The judge had to decide whether the husband had stood in the place of parent since, under the Federal Child Support Guidelines, which apply across Canada to divorced spouses, child support may be payable by a spouse who take on the role of parent.
The judge was guided by a number of court decisions that have their roots in Chartier v. Chartier, a 1999 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. In this case, Judge Michel Bastarache noted that the spouses “have the right to divorce, but not the children who were part of the marriage” and that when a spouse stands in the place of a parent, the children should be able “to rely on the prosecution of this relationship.
In determining whether a spouse stood in the place of a parent, a judge will consider a number of factors. According to Justice Fitzpatrick, these factors include, but are not limited to: a) participation in family events, b) the step-parent’s financial contribution to the children, c) the step-parent’s participation in child-related tasks. , (d) responsibility to discipline children, (e) children’s use of step-parent’s surname, (f) reference to step-parent as “father”, (g) duration of step-parent’s relationship -parent with the children and h) the nature of the relationship with the biological father.
During the 12-day trial, the evidence provided by both sides was remarkably similar on many of these factors. According to Judge Fitzpartrick, the husband testified that “the children called him dad from the first three months” of his relationship with the wife and that “he paid all the household expenses without the contribution of (the wife) who did not work outside the home during the relationship. The evidence also showed that the husband participated in the children’s extracurricular activities such as swimming, hockey and skating. There was evidence of family vacations in Mexico, Florida and Muskoka.
Despite the depth and breadth of the evidence, the husband denied having any closeness or relationship with the children. The husband’s position was based on his belief that he was “dominated by (the wife) and somehow coerced into acting like a parent against her will”. Judge Fitzpatrick dismissed the husband’s allegations on the grounds that “no significant evidence was presented during the trial to support his assertion that (the wife) forced this relationship on (the husband) or the children.”
In particular, following the separation, the husband had no contact with the children. According to the wife, the husband chose to cut off all contact. The absence of contact after separation has no bearing on whether or not there is a child support obligation.
Accordingly, Judge Fitzpatrick had “no difficulty” in concluding that the husband stood in the place of a parent and was liable to pay alimony to the wife for the upkeep of the two children. . Recognizing the short duration of the relationship, Judge Fitzpatrick ordered the husband to pay child support for a period of three years.
To determine the amount of the husband’s monthly support obligation, Judge Fitzpatrick deducted the $94 per month paid by the biological father.
Given the nominal amount of child support paid by the biological father, it should be noted that a step-parent may be required to pay the full monthly amount of child support in certain circumstances. This issue was discussed by Justice Erika Chozik in another recent case before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice. According to Judge Chozik: “Where the biological parent is not present and his maintenance obligation cannot be quantified or enforced, there may be circumstances where the step-parent will have to discharge the primary obligation of maintenance. so that the child can continue to enjoy the standard of living that he enjoyed while living with the step-parent.
In addition to his obligation to pay time-limited child support, the husband was ordered to pay the wife $135,000 in court costs. According to Judge Fitzpatrick, the trial “was a 12-day win-win trial, made longer by (husband’s) incredible denials of any emotional relationship with the children.”
Given the length and cost of a trial to determine whether a parent stood in the place of a parent, separating spouses would be wise to consider resolution options early in such a dispute.
This article was originally published in the Financial position