What legal rights and responsibilities does a step-parent have to a beloved child who is not their natural or adopted son or daughter, but whom they love, cherish, and treat as their own flesh and blood? What are the legal consequences to the admirable and beautiful act of stepping up to the plate and being a parent for a child who is missing one? Much depends on whether they stand in loco parentis to their stepchild as defined under Pennsylvania law.
What does in loco parentis mean? Its Latin for “in place of the parent”. More particularly, “a person in loco parentis is one who means to put him or herself in the situation of a lawful parent to a child with reference to the office and duty of making provision for the child, or one who actually assumes the obligations incident to the parental relation, without going through the formalities necessary to a legal adoption.” In re Adoption of S.M.D., 49 Pa. D. & C.4th 353, 2000 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 130 (2000). Pennsylvania Law Encycopedia.
Pennsylvania law currently holds that, “a stepparent does not, merely by reason of the relation, stand in loco parentis to their step-child”. Kratzer v. Commonwealth, Dep’t of Public Welfare, 85 Pa. Commw. 318, 481 A.2d 1380 (1984). “Accordingly, a stepparent as such is under no obligation to support the children of his or her spouse by a former marriage.” Id.
On the other hand, however, “a stepparent who takes a spouse’s minor child into his or her home and respectfully and responsibly treats the child as his or her own may be considered as standing in loco parentis, and must support and maintain the minor child. Commonwealth ex rel. Bulson v. Bulson, 286 Pa. Super. 633, 419 A.2d 1327 (1980). More recent cases have held, though, that a stepparent acting in loco parentis is not liable to support the stepchild after the dissolution of the marriage with the stepchild’s natural parent. L. S. K. v. H. A. N., 813 A.2d 872, 2002 Pa. Super. LEXIS 3806 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2002).
Nonetheless, when a stepparent has held a child out as his or her own, the stepparent may be estopped from denying an imputed paternity and therefore be financially liable to support the stepchild following a divorce under the doctrine of equitable estoppel. Estoppel in paternity actions is merely the legal determination that because of a person’s conduct (here, holding out the child as his or her own, or supporting the child), that person, regardless of true biological status, will not be permitted to deny parentage. L. S. K. v. H. A. N., 813 A.2d 872, 2002 Pa. Super. LEXIS 3806 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2002.
Pennsylvania Law Encycopedia
Regarding visitation and established stepparents, “when a stepparent is in loco parentis with stepchildren, courts must jealously guard his or her rights to visitation.” Spells v. Spells, 250 Pa. Super. 168, 378 A.2d 879 (1977). The court must permit a stepparent to establish what his or her relationship to a child is and to demonstrate that his or her interest in visitation should be protected. Id.
In summary, then, Pennsylvania law, even in the absence of adoption, may wisely enough confirm the noble act of a stepparent becoming a true parent in both rights and responsibilities, as long as such confirmation is the best interest of the children. Like every other case the legal maxim, “it depends” always applies and every case is factual distinct.
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