Non-Biological Parents & Child Support — The Chartier Decision

What happens when second or third marriages end and there are step-children? Does a step-parent have an obligation to financially support his or her spouse’s children from a previous relationship?

In Chartier v. Chartier [1999] the Supreme Court of Canada held that, in situations of divorce, step-parents often do have an obligation to support step-children after a marriage ends.

Before a step-parent will be ordered to pay child support, a judge must determine whether the step-child is “a child of the marriage.” Such a child includes any child to whom a spouse “stands in the place of a parent.”

To decide if a spouse “stands in the place of aparent”, evidence must be presented as to the nature of the relationship between the step-parent and the child. Once it is shown that the step-child is to be considered a “child of the marriage”, the obligation of a step-parent towards the step-child is the same as if the child was his or her biological child.

In Chartier, the Supreme Court listed a number of factors to help determine whether the step-parent stands in the place of a parent such that the step-parent will be responsible to pay child support. These factors include, but are not limited to the following:

  • the opinion of the child as to the relationship;
  • the representations of the step-parent as to the relationship;
  • whether the child participates in the extended family in the same way as would a biological child;
  • whether the step-parent provides financially for the child (depending on ability to pay);
  • whether the step-parent disciplines the child;
  • whether the step-parent represents to the child, the family, and the world, either implicitly or explicitly, that he or she is responsible as a parent to the child; and
  • the nature or existence of the child’s relationship with the absent biologcial father/mother.

The Supreme Court was clear in that the breakdown of the parent/child relationship after separation is not relevant in determining whether a person stands in the place of a parent.

What is important is the nature of the relationship between the step-parent and the child during the marriage.

Further, once a court finds that a person stands in the place of a parent, that relationship cannot be unilaterally withdrawn by the “step-parent.”

In Chartier, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the step-father had played an active role in caring for and was a father-figure to his wife’s daughter. The step-father treated the child in the same manner as he treated his biological daughter.

It is also important to note that in Chartier, the Supreme Court stated that step-parents not only incur obligations with respect to a step-child. A step-parent also acquires certain rights, such as the right to apply for custody of or access to a child.

But what about the child support obligations of biological parents when there are step-parents?

The Supreme Court confirmed in Chartier, that it is possible for children to be financially supported by both their biological parents and former step-parents.

The support to be paid by the biological parent should be assessed independently of the obligations of the step-parent. The obligation of parents for child support are joint and several.

The Supreme Court is clear in that the issue of contribution is one between all of the parents who have obligations towards the child, whether they are biological parents or step-parents; it should not affect the child.

The approach taken in Chartier appears to be consistent with previous Supreme Court decisions which focus on the best interests of the child. The social policy underlying this decision of our highest court is that children are to be affected as little as possible upon the breakdown of a marriage. So while spouses are entitled to divorce each other, they are not entitled to divorce the children who were part of the marriage.

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