Where does generosity towards family members end and the legal obligation to support them begin? Who is a parent and when does voluntarily taking on that role have legal ramifications? These questions have been analyzed, but not resolved, by the New Jersey Appellate Division in the context of a child support modification application, in Williams v. McCloud*. In that case, the parties had one child together but never married. By agreement, the parties shared joint legal custody, with the plaintiff designated as parent of primary residence. The defendant paid child support to the plaintiff based upon their stipulated, respective incomes. Several years later, the defendant’s mother passed away, leaving behind a grandson (the defendant’s nephew), H.B., who had been in her care. H.B. ultimately moved in with the defendant. Shortly thereafter, H.B.’s parents signed a consent order granting the defendant sole legal and physical custody of H.B., without referencing any obligation of the defendant to support H.B., who was seventeen years old at the time.
The following year, the plaintiff sought an increase in child support. The defendant filed a cross-motion seeking additional parenting time and a reduction in child support, based on changed circumstances. Specifically, the defendant sought an other dependent deduction based on H.B. and the defendant’s obligation to support him. The other dependent deduction is a component of New Jersey child support guidelines and is designed to apportion a parent’s income to all of his or her legal dependents regardless of the timing of their birth or association. This avoids a first-in-time, first-in-right approach to multiple child support obligations.
The trial court found for the plaintiff and denied the defendant’s requests for relief, holding that the defendant was not legally obligated to provide H.B. with support. The defendant appealed, in part, on the basis that the court wrongfully failed to credit him with the other dependent deduction.
On appeal, the court looked to the definition of legal dependents from the appendix to the court rules, which includes adopted and natural children, but not stepchildren, unless a court has found that the stepparent has a legal responsibility for the stepchild. The court acknowledged that the defendant in this case assumed the status of in loco parentis (literally, in the shoes of a parent) once H.B.’s biological parents transferred custody to him. The court noted that a person standing in loco parentis may be precluded from disclaiming a previously assumed support obligation. However, the court distinguished in loco parentis status from natural parenthood or adoption because it exists only as long as the surrogate parent and/or child desire that it exist.
The court grappled with whether a grant of custody necessarily creates an obligation to support, and ultimately remanded to the lower court to determine whether the defendant has a “legal responsibility” to support H.B. as a stepparent, thereby making H.B. a legal dependent per the guidelines. The court highlighted that the order granting custody of H.B. to the defendant made no mention of support.
This decision was arguably driven by the facts, as H.B. was already seventeen years old when the defendant was awarded custody. It could hardly be disputed that a person granted sole legal and physical custody of an infant or small child has a “legal responsibility” to support that child. Moreover, the guidelines assert that stepchildren can be legal dependents where there is a legal responsibility for them, though a financial responsibility is not specified. Legal custody instills decision-making authority in a custodian and arguably creates a legal responsibility. Under that interpretation, physical custody or an express obligation to support may not even be a requirement to find that a person has a legal responsibility for a child sufficient to consider them a “legal dependent” for purposes of crediting the other dependent deduction in a separate child support dispute. However, because the impetus for the deduction is allocation of financial resources, it is likely that there must be some evidence of financial contribution before a person would be entitled to a reduction on a distinct child support obligation on these grounds.
Regardless of the prudence of the outcome in this case, it sheds light on the gray areas of the law with respect to the effect that quasi-parenting of family members may have on existing or future child support obligations.
* The opinion in Williams v. McCloud shall not constitute precedent and is not binding upon any court.