Stepparents Supporting Stepchildren – Is There a Duty?

Combined families are the new norm. Maybe the notion is not new, but the once-called “traditional family” consisting of a married couple living with their own children is becoming obsolete. The traditional family certainly is the minority in the year 2016. With the changes to the family unit, the law also evolves as our laws are intended to protect and support. Most everyone is familiar with the idea that if you have a child, naturally or by adoption, you are responsible for supporting that child at least until they reach the age of majority. The rule gets blurry, however, when stepchildren are involved. For healthy development, a child requires emotional support just as much as financial support. Today, we will be looking at the laws in Arizona regarding the financial support of stepchildren and the duty stepparents are held to regarding support.

For purposes of our discussion today, a stepparent is defined as the relationship formed when an individual marries the custodial parent of a minor child and resides with the child.

Who Must Provide Support?

Under common law, a stepparent has no duty to financially support a stepchild while married to the child’s natural parent. Grubb v. Sterrett, 315 F. Supp. 900 (D. Ind.), aff’d, 400 U.S. 922 (1970).  Natural or adoptive parents owe a duty to support their children. This duty cannot be displaced by the custodial parent’s re-marriage or by the cohabitation of that parent with another person. A.R.S. §12-2451(A); Barrett v. Barrett, 44 Ariz. 509, 39 P.2d 621 (1934).

Twenty states have enacted statutes that impose a duty for stepparents to support a stepchild. While this may seem unfair, or wonderful depending on your circumstances, it is nothing more than codification of the in loco parentis doctrine that is already the law across every state.  Arizona has not adopted a statute but follows the in loco parentis doctrine. The doctrine states that if a stepparent takes stepchildren into his or her family or under his or her care in such a way that he or she places himself or herself in the place of a natural parent, he or she assumes an obligation to support the child and acquires a correlative right to their services. Harris v. Lyon, 16 Ariz. 1 (1914).

In determining whether in loco parentis exists, the courts look at intent. In actuality, the simple act of taking a child into one’s home after marrying their natural parent establishes the intent necessary for in loco parentis. In short, it is extremely difficult to prove one did not intend to act as a parent in that scenario. The relationship is terminable by the stepparent or the stepchild and would require the stepchild not living with the stepparent.

Is There a Way to Be Reimbursed for Supporting My Stepchildren?

In Arizona, the court found that a stepfather has a right for reimbursement of child-related expenses from the years that the natural father did not support his natural child. The case specifically states, “[I]f a natural parent abdicates his or her parental duties and another individual financially supports the child, the law implies a promise by the irresponsible natural parent to reimburse the individual responsible for providing necessaries to the child.” Anonymous Wife v. Anonymous Husband, 739 P.2d 794 (Ariz. 1987). Of course in order to make this type of claim for relief you will need: 1. The other natural parent must not be providing any support, and 2. Proof of expenses. Most people do not keep a running tally with receipts as proof of payments but if there is a “deadbeat” parent on the other side, it might not be a bad idea.

I am a Stepparent, But Considering Divorce.

Interestingly enough, because the law does not impose a duty to support the stepchild outside of in loco parentis, if this relationship has not been established during a marriage (never lived together for example), a stepparent may argue upon divorce that any support provided during the marriage to a stepchild was a drain on marital resources. If properly shown, the stepparent can be entitled to a larger share of the equitable award. In other good news, a stepparent cannot be held accountable for a child support award in a divorce from the natural parent even if in loco parentis existed. The only time a stepparent would be ordered child support for a stepchild is if he or she represented to the child that he or she was the natural parent. If that scenario exists, child support may be found under the doctrine of Equitable Estoppel. The Family Court is a court of equity. Equity is focused on “fairness.” One cannot claim to be a child’s natural parent, act as their natural parent, tell the child one is their natural parent then turn around in a divorce and opt out of responsibility to that child and their development.

Regardless of a duty, most people provide support without hesitation because that is what you “sign up for” when you marry someone with children. However, with so many families being comprised of stepchildren and stepparents, it creates the potential for issues regarding support to arise. No matter your state, the health and welfare of a child is the priority. Claims should not be brought out of malice or contempt for another parent but only to protect and assist in raising a healthy child. For more information, please contact Elizabeth Westby at 602.686.6375 or email

Site Updates in Progress. Thanks for your patience!