Are Stepparents Liable to Pay Child Support for Stepchildren in California?

Most everyone understands that a biological parent is legally liable to financially support his or her children, regardless of whether the parents were married for a decade or had a one-night stand. And while there are a number of parents out there who don’t think that it’s fair that they need to financially support a child until at least the time the child turns 18, especially when they don’t have a relationship with the child, that principle of child support has been firmly embedded in California law for many, many decades.

But what about child support for stepchildren?

In many cases, a stepparent who has married a child’s biological parent might have had a much lengthier and significant relationship with the child than the child’s other biological parent. That child may justifiably look to the stepparent as their provider for many years, especially where the other biological parent is out of the picture. Will that stepparent be liable to pay child support if the marriage comes to an end? In most cases, no, but there are some caveats to keep in mind.

Stepparents Are Generally Not Liable for Child Support to a Stepchild

Again, it is the biological parents’ duty to financially support a child. Thus, it is generally not a non-biological parent’s duty to support a non-biological child. Note that “biological parent” as defined by the law may not always be the actual biological parent. For example, holding out a child as your own who is not your biological child for a number of years – whether or not you actually know if the child is your biological child – may make you the biological father in the eyes of the law. That thorny issue is the topic of a whole other article, but here we focus on situations where a stepparent is clearly not the biological parent, and in those cases most of the time the stepparent will not be liable to pay child support after a divorce.

This is also different from where a stepparent has gone through with an adoption of the child. The very premise of adoption is that a person is volunteering to take on parental obligations for a child, which can include paying child support after a divorce. It should be noted that an adoptive parent also has custody rights in such a situation.

There is also a rare exception where a stepparent might be liable to pay child support through a legal principle called “parentage by estoppel.” If a stepparent knew that he was not in fact the biological parent of a child but nevertheless told the child he was the father, and the child believed the parent to be his actual father and treated him as such, and this occurred over a substantial period of time, a court may determine that that stepparent should be obligated to pay child support.

A stepparent may also voluntarily agree to pay child support for a stepchild, and a marital agreement which provides for such payments to a stepchild may be upheld as enforceable by a California court.

Liability for Your Spouse’s Child Support Obligation

Another situation in which a stepparent may be liable for child support to a stepchild, albeit in an indirect manner, is when the stepparent’s spouse (the biological parent) has a liability for child support to a child but they do not have sufficient funds to pay. California’s community property principles say that a married couple’s community property – basically the money and other assets they collectively earn or acquire with earnings during marriage – can be used to pay off the individual obligations of either party.     

What this means in the context of child support is that, for example, if a biological father owes $20,000 in back and current child support obligations and does not have the funds to pay, but has married a new wife, and she earns money which could be used to pay child support, a court may require that the earnings of the new wife be used to pay the child support obligation for the benefit of the stepchild.

Guidance on Your California Child Support Questions From a Westlake Village Family Law Attorney

If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on child support issues or any other California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.