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When it comes to divorce and child access or support issues, one’s mind most commonly turns to the legal parents of the child. However, what about situations where a parent re-marries and their new spouse forms a close bond with the child(ren) of a previous relationship? In many step-parent/step-child relationships, serious bonds can form, and resemble that of parent and child. If that second marriage were to end in the future, does the step-parent have any claims on access to the child? For that matter, do they have any obligations to the child in terms of support? Below, we look at the current state of the law in Ontario with respect to the rights and obligations of step-parents after a divorce or separation.

Step-Parents and Child Support

Under Ontario law, it is possible that a step-parent will be found to be responsible for child support if they were married to or in a common-law relationship with one fo the child’s parents. The more the relationship resembles a parent/child relationship, the more likely this is to occur. In determining this, courts will examine a number of factors, including:

  • How does the child feel about their relationship with the step-parent?
  • Does the child take part in the extended family in the same way as a biological child?
  • Does the step-parent provide financially for the child to the best of their ability?
  • Does the step-parent discipline the child?
  • Does the step-parent talk about themselves as a responsible parent to the child, the family, and the larger community?
  • What relationship does the child have with their absent biological parent?

Even if one biological or adoptive parent to the child is already paying support from the previous relationship, it is still possible for the step=parent to be held responsible for additional support. However, unlike a parent, a step-parent’s obligation may not be determined by the federal Child Support Guidelines, which calculate support obligations based on income and other factors. A step-parent’s support may be supplementary, and therefore not quantified in the same way a parent’s support would be.

Step-Parents and Access Rights

Some people may not be aware that any individual with an interest in preserving access to a child can apply for it; it is not limited to parents. This includes grandparents, aunts, uncles and step-parents. As with any access application, the primary consideration will be the best interests of the child.

As demonstrated in a 2018 Ontario decision, even in a situation where both biological parents of a child have chosen to prohibit access by a step-parent, the court may intervene on the child’s behalf. In the case at hand, the child’s parents had divorced, and the father remarried. He was married to his second wife, the child’s step-mother, for seven years. During the course of that time, the step-mother and child bonded significantly. After the second marriage ended in divorce, both biological parents united in their desire to keep the step-mother from seeing their son.

After only being permitted to see her step-son four times in two years, the step-mother brought an application for access. The court considered the best interests of the child in light of the following:

  1. The child loved the stepmother and the stepmother loved the child.
  2. The child viewed the stepmother as a parent and the stepmother treated the child as her own child.
  3. The child had an important relationship with the stepmother that needed to be preserved and fostered.
  4. Access with the stepmother would ensure that the child could have important relationships with his sister, friends and extended family members.
  5. The court was satisfied that the stepmother would act responsibly in parenting the child.

The court granted the step-mother access of one weekend per month and stressed the importance that the child be allowed to enjoy relationships that were important to him.

As this case shows, even when both parents are opposed to contact between their child and a third party, the courts will intervene when the contact is in the child’s best interests. As stated above, the bond between step-parent and child can be powerful, and just like it would be harmful to keep a child from a loving parent, the same can be said about a loving step-parent.

At Baker & Companyour family law lawyers are committed to minimizing as much stress as possible for clients involved in a high-conflict divorce or separation or other family law dispute. We will help you understand what you can expect, help you communicate with your ex-spouse, put agreements into place to prevent future disputes from arising, and, above all, represent your best interests. Call us at 416-777-0100 or contact us online for a consultation.

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