As a practicing family law lawyer in British Columbia, I see many clients wince and squirm when they find out their soon-to-be-ex may claim child support against them for the step-children even when their ex gets child support from the biological parent. How can this be? Isn’t this double dipping or something? The problem is even worse for people where the divorce scenario is such that a high income earner with an income of $150,000 per year and up has three step children and the biological parent earns only $50,000 per year. At first blush the Federal Child Support Guidelines (the “FCSG”) suggest there might be a whopping monthly payment of $2000 to $3000 per month (less the $998 from the biological parent) coming as the kiss goodbye! Yikes. Forget the new Audi R8, you may be driving the old Toyota Prius for a while. What is the obligation? To assist you we need to understand some basic legal structure that applies to the step-parent child support case.

In Canada and in British Columbia, the FCSGs provide that in the circumstance where a person “stands in the place of a parent” (that is a fancy legal phrase which really means “step-parent”) the obligation to pay child support is not necessarily the same as the obligation to pay child support for a natural child. For a natural child, the obligation is clear because a parent must pay child support based on a table which dictates how much child support is paid by reference to the amount of income earned. Figuring out how much a step-parent must pay introduces an element of discretion, and determining how to exercise that discretion becomes the real issue. Unfortunately for step-parents the amount of child support payable on the Guidelines is considered- but there is also consideration as to the biological parent’s legal duty to support the child as well. To put it in simple terms you start off by looking at the step-parent’s income and the biological parent’s income but you don’t stop there.

So where is the good news for step-parents? There is relief from some of the obligation when you look at the precedent found in the case law concerning a step-parent’s obligation. What is important to remember is that the law treats step-parents fairly if they present the facts or rely on the facts that will help them. When not handled properly, quite honestly step-parents can be hammered on child support for step-children. I will provide a few of the various available facts used to reduce the legal obligation:

  1. The relationship with step-child. Where a step child wants nothing to do with a step parent, this can be an important consideration. Support can be reduced when the child relationship with the step-parent evaporates or diminishes on separation;
  2. The length of the relationship. Shorter step-parent relationships with children generally mean an increased likelihood that support will be reduced; and
  3. New relationships. If a parent seeks child support from a step-parent and has entered into another relationship, this raises the likelihood of reducing support.

The obligation to pay child support for a step-child has an unfortunate reality. The concept behind step-parent child support is that the child has a right to the standard of living enjoyed while being supported by and living with the step-parent. Accordingly it may be very important for step-parents who think that their relationship with their spouse might be on thin ice to carefully assess what kind of life-style they provide for the step children. Providing a higher standard of living may just lead to a more significant obligation if the relationship ends.

Sadly sometimes step children don’t know how to process their relationship with their biological parent and the concurrent step-parent relationship which can lead to a circumstance where step children don’t treat their step parents too well. These step parents need to be cognizant that even in this circumstance, if the marriage or relationship ends, the salt in the wound might be a child support obligation to a step-child. Knowing what is legally possible to do to reduce the obligation for these children may turn out to be very important if you are separating or divorcing and you have step children.

Originally published September 13, 2012