Thank You For Submiting Feedback!
The 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. It is only when a stepparent by his or her conduct actively interferes with the children's support from their natural parent that he or she may be equitably estopped from denying his or her duty to support the children.
Gladys Miller married Jay Miller on December 16, 1972. No children were born of their marriage. During the couple's marriage Gladys' two daughters by her prior marriage lived with the Millers. Gladys and Jay separated on December 12, 1979. In February, 1980, Gladys filed a Verified Complaint seeking dissolution of the Millers' marriage. Although Jay was not the natural or adoptive father of Gladys' daughters, Gladys sought child support from Jay for her children. In her complaint, she alleged that by his actions, Jay had induced the girls to rely on him as their natural father, to their emotional and financial detriment. By so doing, he had prevented and cut off the girls' relationship with their natural father. Therefore, she claimed he was equitably estopped from denying a duty to pay child support. Jay claimed that although he stood in loco parentis to the children during his marriage, he was merely their stepfather and any legal relationship he had with the children terminated with his divorce from their mother. The trial court agreed with Gladys. It held that Jay was equitably estopped from denying his duty to support the girls, and required him to pay child support of $ 75 per week per child. The trial court based its holding primarily on the concept of "emotional bonding." Jay, by his actions, had knowingly and intentionally fostered a bona fide parental relationship with the girls, so that in their minds he became their father. Therefore, he could not avoid the financial obligations flowing from that relationship. The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's judgment, primarily because it found that Jay had actively interfered with the normal relationship between the girls and their natural father to the girls' emotional and financial detriment.
Can a stepparent be equitably estopped from denying the duty to provide child support for minor stepchildren after divorcing their natural parent?
The court held that the doctrine of equitable estoppel could be utilized to establish a support obligation on behalf of a stepparent. The court held that when a stepfather expressly promised to care for the children and the wife relied on this promise, the husband's promise and the wife's reliance thereon were sufficient consideration to create a continuing obligation to support the children after a divorce. However, the court held that a factual determination of the extent of any reliance on appellant's promises had to be made by the trial court on remand. The court also reversed and remanded the distribution of the marital assets. The court held that equitable distribution was intimately tied to child support and alimony and could change based on the remand of the child support issue.