Entering into a new family dynamic with children from a previous marriage can be difficult, especially as a newlywed. Supporting your spouse or partner’s children may come as naturally as the care you would provide, if they were your own flesh and blood. Providing financial support for your stepchildren can actually complicate your new marriage should things sour and end in divorce. Here are several important aspects to keep in mind when entering into a civil union or marriage where there are children from a previous relationship.
1. Does the Non-Custodial Parent Pay Support?
As a stepparent, it may be second nature for you to provide financial support for your new spouse’s children from a previous relationship. The urge might be strong, but you shouldn’t do so at the expense of harming existing relationships between the kids and their biological parents. If the noncustodial parent, be it the biological father or mother, is providing monthly financial support for their children, they should continue to do so. Enforce any existing order for support so the parent continues to make financial contributions to raising their children. Failing to do so could have far-reaching complications, if your marriage ends in a divorce or dissolution.
2. Who Has a Relationship with the Children?
A noncustodial parent with an existing relationship with their children is a simple support case in the eyes of the court. That parent simply continues making their financial support payments. Should your own marriage end in divorce, it’s highly unlikely that you as a stepparent would have any obligation to pay child support for your stepchildren because of the noncustodial parent’s continued obligation. If the noncustodial parent does not have a relationship with their children, and you voluntarily provide financial support, the court’s opinion on your obligations could change significantly.
3. Providing Financial Support for Stepchildren
Voluntarily providing financial support for your stepchildren can harm the biological parent’s ability to establish a relationship with their natural children. In doing so, the court can rule you as having an ongoing support obligation should your marriage end in divorce or dissolution. For example, if you represent yourself as the natural parent, never telling your stepchildren that you are not their ‘real’ father or mother, you inhibit the biological parent’s involvement with their children. You represented yourself as the biological parent, and the court usually rules that you must continue to do so after divorce.
4. Harming Stepchildren by Withholding Support
If the court believes you withholding support would do harm to your stepchildren, they may require you to pay child support. Your actions – providing financial support – caused your stepchildren to depend on that money to meet their ongoing needs: food, clothing, etc. In withholding financial assistance post divorce, you can harm the ability of your stepchildren to live full lives. The doctrine, known as “equitable estoppel” means in essence that you can’t assume the role of a parent, and then cease those actions after someone (the children) has become reliant on you in that role.
5. Stepparents in Divorce
Without the involvement of a noncustodial parent, a divorce involving stepchildren occurs in much the same way as if both parents were the natural mother and father. The court can order you to pay child support, determine visitation rights, and whose health insurance the children will remain on going forward.
As a new parent with stepchildren, you may feel tempted to push out the noncustodial parent and pretend they don’t exist. Assuming the role of a natural parent could be overpowering, especially if the kids are young. Doing so not only robs the children of their relationship with their mother or father, it can increase your own financial obligations now and in the future. If you have questions about custody arrangements or support actions relating to your New Jersey divorce, contact our attorneys today for immediate assistance.