Stepchildren after Divorce
In an unusual and possibly groundbreaking case, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has found a stepfather responsible for the financial support of his stepchildren though he never adopted them. The circumstance that differentiates this case from others of its kind is that the stepfather sought legal and physical custody of his ex-wife’s children, claiming parental rights for having stood in loco parentis for many years.
The story begins in Serbia where a mother gave birth to twins in 1998. In 2005, she married Avraham Shiloh who thus became the twins’ stepfather. The couple relocated to Pennsylvania, then separated in 2009. In 2012, the mother, Irena Shiloh, graduated from law school and took the California bar exam, planning to relocate to California with her children.
At this point, the stepfather filed for custody and an emergency petition to keep his ex-wife from moving out of the area, claiming that he stood in loco parentis. The court, siding with the stepfather, granted him partial custody of the children and prevented the mother from moving out of the area.
This is where the case becomes strange. The mother, her plans thwarted by the courts in order for her ex-husband to have parental access to his stepchildren, filed (it would seem logically) for child support. In seeming contradiction to its earlier decision, however, the court ruled that the stepfather was not responsible for child support since he was not the twins’ biological father.
The mother appealed this ruling, but a Superior Court affirmed the decision. In a somewhat inexplicable ruling, the Court declared that Avraham Shiloh had never “held himself out as [the children’s] father or agreed to support [them] financially.”
When the mother appealed the case again, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. This time, Irena Shiloh was finally vindicated. In a 3 – 1 vote in the A.S. v. I.S. case, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of both lower courts, holding that when Avraham took legal steps to assume rights equal to those of a biological parent, he assumed parental obligations as well.
Justice Max Baer, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, explained that simple in loco parentis status, without legal adoption, does not in itself create child support obligation. This case, however, is atypical, in that the stepfather repeatedly litigated to achieve the legal and physical custodial rights of a biological parent. In doing so, Avraham Shiloh created a situation under which he is responsible for supporting the children he was so desperate to parent.
This legal decision may have ramifications nationwide in terms of how stepparent rights and responsibilities are defined going forward. In this era of same sex marriages, blended families, and other unconventional family constellations, there may be a need for further refinement of laws defining custodial and visitation rights and “parental” obligations.
The complexity of modern families makes family law an increasingly complicated field. This is why it is more important than ever to have a skilled attorney at your side when handling divorce, child custody, and paternity issues.