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Court Discusses Responsibilities Under Family Court Act


Petitioner is an 18-year old single female attending in a community college on a work-study program. Her mother died on September 2, 1961. A New York Family Lawyer said thereafter, her father married respondent on August 9, 1962 when petitioner was three years of age. Two female children, petitioner’s half sisters, were born of this union. Her father died on March 10, 1975. Petitioner continued to reside in respondent’s home until June 15, 1977.

In June of 1977, petitioner left respondent’s residence to reside with relatives and now seeks support from the respondent pursuant to Section 415 of Article 4 of the Family Court Act. A New York Child Custody Lawyer said the petitioner has limited income and is imminently liable to go on public assistance and in fact presently receiving medicaid benefits from the Department of Social Services. Petitioner cited two (2) similar cases in support of her contention that the death of a parent does not conclude the stepparent relationship because death is an act of God and is therefore not a willful act. In contrast, the petitioner further argues, a divorce does end this relationship since there is an “intent to terminate the living tendrils of the marriage.”

The question presented in this case by the petitioner is whether a stepparent, whose marriage has been terminated by the death of the child’s natural parent, is legally responsible for the support of the stepchild.

Respondent, however, maintained that the stepparent relationship required under Section 415 of the Family Court Act ceased when her marriage was terminated by the death of her husband.

Under section 415 of the Family Court Act creates this liability and provides as follows:

“Except as otherwise provided by law, the spouse or parent of a recipient of public assistance or care or of a person liable to become in need thereof or of a patient in an institution in the department of mental hygiene, if of sufficient ability, is responsible for the support of such person or patient, provided that a parent shall be responsible only for the support of his childor children who have not attained the age of twenty-one years. With this, the court may require any such person to contribute a fair and reasonable sum for the support of such relative and may apportion the costs of such support among such persons as may be just and appropriate in view of the needs of the petitioner and the other circumstances of the case and their respective means. Step-parents shall in like manner be responsible for the support of children under the age of twenty-one years.”

A Suffolk County Family Lawyer said the court referred to the dictionary to define the term, step, and said that Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “a prefix used before father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, child, etc., to indicate that the person thus spoken of is not a blood relative but is a relative only by marriage of a parent.” While Black’s Law Dictionary defines stepmother as “the wife of one’s father by virtue of a marriage subsequent to that of which the person spoken of is the offspring”, and the American Herionary defines the term as “the wife of one’s father by a later marriage.”

Though petitioner’s arguments appear to be persuasive, the court was not convinced. The relationship between stepparent and stepchild arises as a result of the remarriage of the natural parent. Liability for support of stepchildren is therefore collateral to the existence of a valid marriage. Once the marriage is dissolved, be it by divorce, death, or for any other reason whatsoever, the stepparent relationship ceases and with it the obligation of the stepparent to pay support for the stepchild.

A stepmother therefore is merely a woman who is the wife of one’s father but not actually one’s mother. Since the relationship derives from the marriage, it follows that it ends upon termination of the marriage regardless of the manner of termination.

Moreover, the court noted that it is well settled that statutes which are in derogation of the common law are to be strictly construed, Since Section 415 of the Family Court Act is in derogation of the common law (stepparents at common law were not bound by law to maintain their stepchildren), it must be interpreted literally.

Hence, the respondent’s relation to the petitioner ended with the death of petitioner’s natural father, who was then the respondent’s husband. As a result, respondent’s obligation to support petitioner pursuant to Section 415 of the Family Court Act has ended as well. With this, the court found that it lacks jurisdiction to issue an order of support. Hence, the petition was dismissed.

A few people know their responsibilities under the Family Court Act. And a few more know their rights under this important statute. That is why you will need to ask expert Suffolk County Child Support Attorneys who are familiar with these legal provisions so they can explain to you your rights and corresponding duties under the law.

If you are confronted with a similar case as above, you can consult with any of the Suffolk County Child Support Lawyers of Stephen Bilkis and Associates. We have many branches within the metropolitan area of New York designed for your convenience.

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