Blended families are becoming the norm some might say. Whatever the statistics may be, it would not be too far-fetched to say that at least one of you reading this article right now or someone else you know, is part of a blended family.

The process of forming a new, blended family can be filled many exciting and rewarding moments, but it is not without its challenges and the experience by new spouses with each other, after finding love again, may not be the same experience between a new spouse and their newly acquired stepchildren.

Engaging in respectful and open communications between new spouses about any concerns a step-parent may have is ideal. However, there are subjects that are not that easy to broach.

Child Support and the financial responsibility of a step-parent is one of those subjects. The following paragraphs are intended to demystify some issues that are worth noting.

The Child Support Assessment Act 1989 does not require anyone other than the biological parent of child to support that child. In other words, there is no automatic legal duty to maintain a step-child. However, under the Family Law Act 1975 (the Act), a court can impose a duty on a step-parent to financially support a child if it deems this appropriate. This liability is then registered with Child Support which then collects payments from the step-parent.

A step-parent is defined as a person who is not a parent of the child, and is or has been married or in a de facto relationship with a parent of the child. It is also a person who, while married to or in a de facto relationship with the parent, treats or treated the child as a member of the family formed with the parent.

A legal duty to maintain a step-child will only arise if there is a declaration from a court to that effect. The court may “make such [a] child maintenance order as it thinks proper” requiring a stepparent to maintain a step-child.

In making an order the court considers the:

  1. length and circumstances of the marriage to, or relationship with, the parent of the child;
  2. relationship between the step-parent and the child;
  3. arrangements that have been in place for the maintenance of the child;
  4. special circumstances to avoid injustice or undue hardship to any person.

In determining the contribution to be made by the step-parent, the court considers the:

  1. income, earning capacity, property and financial resources of the step-parent;
  2. step-parent’s needs to support themselves or any other child or person the step-parent has to maintain;
  3. costs incurred by the parent or other person with whom the child lives in providing care for the child, including loss of income;
  4. special circumstances to avoid injustice or undue hardship to any person.

The court will consider the child’s needs when deciding the amount of child support to be paid including:

  1. the income, earning capacity, property and financial resources of the child;
  2. the child’s age;
  3. child’s education and expectations to be educated;
  4. the child’s special need;
  5. published research about child costs.

The Act however, also states the duty of a step-parent is secondary to the duty of the child’s parents to maintain the child, and does not remove the responsibility from the biological parents.

An example of a case where the Court made a step-parent maintenance order was in the case of Hill v Hill (1991), where the step-father was not seeing the child and the court found that:

  1. there was no evidence as to the capacity of the biological father to pay child support, but this was not considered significant because the wife and child had been living in poverty in the Philippines before the marriage;
  2. the extent to which the step-father had assumed responsibility for the child was shown by the fact he was an Australian who married the mother in the Philippines and arranged for her and the child to live in Australia.

This article first appeared in the March – April 2023 edition of Medicus Journal. Medicus Journal is the AMA (WA)’s award-winning journal distributed bimonthly to more than 4,000 doctors and decision-makers throughout Western Australia.  The Australian Medical Association (AMA) is the peak professional body for doctors in Australia.