What if your role to a child is akin to a parent or stepparent? What part of this relationship will the court recognize? What have they recognized in the past? Continue reading to learn more about how family law practitioners may deal with support, custody, and in loco parentis cases.

There’s an adage that goes “be careful what you wish for, lest it comes true!”  

The origin is from Aesop’s Fables, one the world’s best known morality tales, and often has been interpreted as wishing to be in a different place, relationship, or circumstance, but without thinking of the consequences that might follow. 

In Joseph S. Caldwell, Jr. vs. Philip Jaurigue (Jaurigue), a Pennsylvania Superior Court decision from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the Superior Court carefully lays out Aesop’s Fable in a decision that provides a cautionary tale for family law practitioners going forward when dealing with support, custody, and in loco parentis cases.  Caldwell, Jr. vs. Jaurigue, No. 140 EDA 2022.

The facts of Jaurigue are undisputed:

Joseph S. Caldwell (Plaintiff) is the biological father of one 10-year-old child (Child).  Mother, (Jacqui Spencer) and Father never married, but Mother was pregnant with Child when she began seeing Defendant (Jaurigue).  Mother and Jaurigue began living together in 2013 when Child was 16 months old, until Mother’s death in December 2019.  Thereafter, Child went to live with Plaintiff and visited with Jaurigue only when permitted by Plaintiff.

Jaurigue filed a petition for custody claiming standing under the legal doctrine of In Loco Parentis.  This literally means, “In the place of a parent”.  Peters v. Costello, 891 A.2s 705, 710 (Pa. 2005).  While Plaintiff objected properly, standing was confirmed for Jaurigue and a custody order was eventually entered by the trial court, granting Plaintiff sole legal and primary physical custody of Child, but awarding Jaurigue partial physical custody.  While the parties dispute the actual number of days, Jaurigue was granted substantial time with Child beyond his physical custody days:

Jaurigue is allowed daily Facetime/phone calls on his non-custodial days, along with daily texts.  Father must notify Jaurigue of, and allow him to participate in, a long but non-exhaustive list of Child’s school and extracurricular activities. . . must name Jaurigue as a family member if required. . . must inform. . . and allow him to participate in, any therapy or tutoring sessions with Child.  And should Father wish to relocate with Child, he must notify Jaurigue. . .pursuant to 23 Pa. C.S.A. §5337(c) and (d).

Id. at p. 11 (Emphasis added)

The interesting aspect of Jaurigue is that this case was an appeal to the Superior Court from Father’s request that Jaurigue pay child support for the benefit of the child.  The Trial Court, quoting from Commonwealth ex. Re. McNutt v. McNutt, 496 A.2d 816, 817 (Pa. Super. 1985), in dismissing Father’s request for support relied on the general rule in the Commonwealth that no legal duty of support rest on a former stepparent to support a former stepchild:

If we were to hold that a stepparent acting in loco parentis would be held liable for support even after the dissolution of the marriage, then all persons who gratuitously assume parental duties for a time could be held legally responsible for a child’s support.

However, in reversing the Trial Court and remanding the case, the Superior Court concluded that Jaurigue does have an obligation to pay support.  The Superior Court went to lengths to differentiate this case from the “typical” stepparent case.  Because remember, Jaurigue never married Mother.  Thus, Jaurigue was not technically a stepparent. However, in his brief to the Superior Court, Jaurigue himself stated that his role towards that of Child was “akin to a stepparent.”  

The Superior Court relied in part also on A.S. vs. I.S., 130 A.3d 763 (Pa. 2015) in reversing the Trial Court.  A.S. reaffirmed the longstanding position that by simply maintaining a relationship with a former Stepchild does not incur any financial obligations on the former Stepparent.  However, A.S. did allow for exceptions for cases like Jaurigue where the former stepparent took affirmative legal steps to act as a parent such that those acts would trigger an obligation for support for Child.

In echoing the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Jaurigue Court adopted the general holding that when Jaurigue took affirmative steps to assume the same rights as the biological parent, he also assumes the parental obligations, including the payment of child support.  Be careful what you wished for Jaurigue, you just got it.

If you have questions about child custody, you should speak with an experience West Chester attorney. At Potts, Shoemaker & Grossman, LLC, our attorneys are prepared to assist you in finding the best approach for your unique situation. To schedule a confidential consultation, contact us at (610) 840-2626.