As a New Jersey divorce attorney, I have had many stepparents ask me if they are legally responsible to pay N.J. child support for a stepchild. My reply is always the same: maybe. When I get that funny look, I then started investigating the facts surrounding the relationship between the two. Then as an experienced New Jersey child support lawyer, I start making determinations if this is a case of in loco parentis. What is that? Let’s explore.

In loco parentis is a Latin term that specifically means, “in place of the parent.” In the context of a New Jersey child custody case, a number of factors come in to play. First, the child’s biological parent is usually completely out of the picture and not part of the child’s life whatsoever. Second, the child would likely have known his or her stepparent since they were very young. Third and most importantly, the child must be emotionally and financially reliant on the stepparent. In other words, they view the stepparent as their “true” parent. If all off the above exist, this may very well be a case of in loco parentis and the stepparent can be court ordered to pay New Jersey child support.

Now, many of my stepparent clients would prefer to remain part of the child’s life, as they love the child “as if” they were their own. Of course, this is a situation I would promote and advocate for (although they would have very limited legal rights). However, some client’s are shocked when I explain that they may have to pay child support for a child that it not biologically theirs. I then explain, that the focus of and NJ Family Judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey is going to always protect the best interests of the child. Certainly, for a stepchild to lose both the emotionally and financial support that they have relied on all or most of their lives, would traumatize the child. While the stepparent does not have a “legal” obligation to continue to be emotionally supportive of the child, they can be court ordered to be financially responsible until the child is emancipated under New Jersey divorce law.

As a general rule in New Jersey, a child’s natural parent should always be considered the primary recourse for child support because society and its current laws assume that the natural parent will support his or her child. Only when a stepparent by his or her own conduct actively and voluntarily interferes with the child’s support from his or her natural parent that he or she may become legally responsible for supporting that child. To some, this is a scary thought. As a stepparent you want to be like a parent to your new spouse’s children. However, do you want legal obligations to follow? While some stepparents are willing to become a child’s psychological and financially supportive parent, others do not want that added pressure.

A leading case in New Jersey that illustrates this situation is Miller v. Miller, 478 A.2d 351 (N.J. Sup. Ct. 1984). In the case, Gladys Miller married Jay Miller. No children were born of their marriage; however, Gladys had two daughters from her prior marriage that lived with her and Jay. Eight years later, the couple divorced and Gladys wanted Jay to pay her child support for her daughters, that weren’t even his.

In Gladys’s complaint, she alleged that while married to Jay, he acted as the children’s natural father, psychologically and financially. He not only prevented the girls from seeing their natural father, who was in prison, but also demanded that he be the girls’ primary caretaker and supporter. When the children’s natural father tried sending checks for support, Jay would rip them up. He restricted the girls from visiting their natural father because he believed that visiting an inmate would not be good for the girls. Additionally, when the children’s natural father was released from prison, he tried to see them; however, Jay would not allow it.

Of course, Jay alleged that he was merely the girls’ stepfather. Any legal relationship he might have established with the children was over once he and Gladys were legally divorced. While he admitted to loving the children while married to Gladys, he alleged that he was not legally obligated to support them financially.

The court held that Jay was responsible to support the children. An outlier case, the court stated that Jay had chosen to become the children’s financial supporter and cut off all ties with their natural father, thus making him their only father figure to look to. Although the court came out this way in its decision, it is important to know that in New Jersey there is no statutory requirement that legally obligates a stepparent to be financially responsible for children that aren’t born from his or her marriage. The only way that a stepparent can become responsible for child support is if he or she voluntarily takes on the role of a natural parent.

If you or a loved one has a New Jersey child support issue, please contact my office so that we may guide you accordingly. Thank you.