From Child Support to Parenting Time: Understanding Stepparent Rights

By Chyanne Sharma, BC Family Lawyer

Blended families have become quite common in today’s society. According to a 2019 Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth, 20% of children who have experienced parental separation or divorce, live with a stepparent - that equates to over 237,000 Canadian kids. There is no question that stepparents play an indispensable role in their family’s lives, offering emotional support and often contributing financially. However, the boundaries of their parental authority, including their rights and responsibilities, are not always clear-cut. While rewarding, the role of a stepparent comes with distinct legal and emotional challenges, particularly in maintaining a nurturing relationship with stepchildren while respecting the authority of their biological parents.

But what happens if a stepparent and their partner break up? Do they still have to chip in for child support? Can they still spend time with their step kids? Even though they’re not the biological parents, Canadian law recognizes that stepparents have rights and responsibilities that can impact decisions about who pays child support and parenting time.

Does a Stepparent Still Have to Pay Child Support?

When a person assumes a parental role for their spouse's children, they may be required to continue to support those stepchildren even after the relationship with their spouse ends. The Divorce Act, federal legislation that applies Canada-wide, currently defines a “child of the marriage” as a child of both spouses or former spouses and includes "any child of whom one is the parent and for whom the other stands in the place of a parent." Once a stepparent relationship is determined, their obligations to any stepchildren would then be comparable to those of the biological parents.

For a stepparent to be obligated to provide support, they must have contributed to the child’s care for at least a year, and any legal action against that stepparent must be commenced within one year of their last contribution. The duty of a stepparent to provide support comes after that of the child’s biological parents and guardians, ensuring they meet their support obligations while also recognizing that the primary responsibility remains with the child’s biological parents. It is determined based on factors like the standard of living and the duration of the child's residence with the stepparent. However, the process for determining the amount of child support payable by a stepparent is not clearly outlined in legislation. For example, the Federal Child Support Guidelines (the “FCSGs”) give judges the discretion to set an appropriate child support amount. They must consider the amount specified in the child support tables as well as the legal duty of any parent other than the stepparent to support the children.

It is important to note that a child support order can only be issued against a stepparent if they are no longer together with the child’s parent. This rule serves to ensure that stepparents are not obligated to provide financial support for their stepchildren while they are still living with the child's biological parent, who is assumed to already be supporting the child's needs.

Can Stepparents Still Have Parenting Time?

As families evolve, stepparents may become deeply involved in their stepchild’s life - sometimes even more than the biological parents. Courts recognize these bonds and consider them when a stepparent is seeking contact or parenting time. If you’ve maintained a close relationship with your stepchildren, you might want to maintain your relationship after separation or continue to play a role in their lives as a parental figure. This is especially true for those who have been active in their stepchildren’s lives since they were young.

If you wish to continue being an active stepparent post-separation, discuss or negotiate it with your ex-spouse and try to agree on a plan that keeps you involved in the children's lives. It’s important to remember that these types of decisions should only be made on what is in the best interest of the children, rather than what is ideal or convenient for you or your ex-spouse. If you’re able to settle this issue outside of court, you and your ex can enter into a formal written agreement or a consent order.

However, if you can't reach an agreement, you have options through the courts, including:

  1. Applying for a court order to become the children's guardian under the BC or Alberta Family Law Acts. Being a stepparent doesn't automatically grant you guardianship rights.
  2. Applying for a court order to have contact with the children.
  3. Applying as a spouse under the Divorce Act, if you and your spouse are divorcing, seeking decision-making responsibility and parenting time.
  4. Or, if you and your ex were not married, applying to the court to seek permission to apply for a parenting order under the Divorce Act, which also permits non-spouses who are or who planned to be involved in the child's upbringing.

When seeking court orders, you'll need to demonstrate to the court that the orders you're requesting are in the best interests of your stepchildren. This ensures that any decisions made by the court prioritize the well-being of the children above all else. Some of these factors include:

  • The child’s physical and emotional health, both now and in the future.
  • The child’s wishes, if they are old enough and mature enough to express them.
  • The nature and strength of the relationship between the child and the stepparent.
  • The need for stability in the child’s life.
  • And, the history of care for the child.

Seek Legal Help

Stepparenting presents a unique set of challenges and responsibilities, especially when navigating post-separation dynamics. Understanding your rights and obligations as a stepparent is integral for maintaining healthy relationships with your stepchildren and ensuring their well-being. Whether you're exploring child support obligations, seeking parenting time, or aiming to protect your role in a child's life, the guidance of an experienced family lawyer can be indispensable. At Crossroads Law, our team specializes in addressing the complexities of family law with empathy and expertise. We're committed to providing you with the support and advice you need to navigate the intricacies of stepparenting. Schedule your free 20-minute consultation with us today to explore how we can assist you in securing a positive future for you and your stepchildren.

The information contained in this blog is not legal advice and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject. The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only.