The Age

Stepfather ruled liable for adult child

January 4 2003
By Sarah Crichton
The Age

Step-parents may be held financially liable for their partner's adult children even if the marriage ends, after a ground-breaking court ruling.

The full bench of the Family Court has ruled that such children have the same rights as biological children in claims for maintenance, meaning they can seek help for two purposes - education or disabled support.

The precedent was set after a test case that was highlighted in the court's annual report as a significant development in case history. The court, with Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson presiding, ruled that the Family Law Act does give the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court the power toorder the same provisions for stepchildren.

The education criterion is usually interpreted as a first degree or formal tertiary qualification, though family lawyers say the interpretation can depend on the child's family background and parents' financial circumstances. In the case of a disabled child, the time limit for that support is technically unlimited.

As with all actions in the court, identities of those involved are protected, but the case was mounted by a woman living in New South Wales, known as "E", who turns 20 this month.

In 1997, soon before E turned 14, her mother died from cancer, having remarried four years earlier. E's stepfather, who lives in the ACT, had lived with them since 1991. E sought maintenance from her natural father of $150 a week and the same amount from her stepfather so that she could go to university.

She later reached an agreement with her natural father that he would pay her $50 a week. The issue of whether she could pursue her claim from her stepfather was then referred to the full bench to determine whether the court had jurisdiction.

The stepfather's lawyer, George Brzostowski, argued that the law as drafted was unclear and did not spell out that step-parents could be liable in the same way as biological parents. However, the court ruled parliament would have intended the same outcome for step-parents. E's case will now go back before a federal magistrate to determine whether the stepfather should have to pay and, if so, how much.

Unlike cases of relationships between a parent and a biological child, where a parent's obligation stands regardless, in stepchildren cases the magistrate must consider the quality of the relationship between the child and stepfather. No case has yet been taken that establishes where the law stands in the same circumstance for children in de facto relationships.

Mr Brzostowski said the ruling raised philosophical issues of which many potential step-parents would be unaware.

Copyright 2002 The Age Company Ltd.