Is adoption a prerequisite to obtaining legal child custody?

Are the rules of child custody changing? A recent decision warrants a closer look.

Specifically, a state supreme court recently determined that a stepparent could be imputed with parental obligations, toward the same extent as a biological parent, if his or her actions indicated that level of commitment.

Typically, a stepparent must go through the legal process of adoption before assuming parental obligations. In this case, however, a stepfather married a woman with two seven-year-old twins. When they separated four years later, the stepfather filed a complaint in family law court, seeking child custody. An emergency petition to prohibit the mother from relocating out-of-state with the twins accompanied his complaint filing. The stepfather prevailed on both requests.

When the mother sought child support against the stepfather, however, the lower state court denied her request on the ground that the man was not the twins’ biological father. On appeal, the state supreme court determined that the stepfather’s legal actions had created parental obligations.

The decision may have implications for other family situations where an individual may not be the biological parent but has assumed a parenting role. Same-sex couples who become parents and unmarried couples who have children from previous relationships should take heed of this decision.

As a law firm that focuses on family law, we urge individuals to take a proactive approach to their family situations. Non-biological parents should consider legal adoption in order to ensure they have a role in a child’s future, and paternity determinations can be used to seek child support from unmarried parents. However, today's story illustrates that additional arguments may soon be available.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "Pennsylvania Supreme Court holds stepfather liable for child support," Max Mitchel, Jan. 12, 2016