On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
For reversal and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Schreiber, Pollock, O'Hern and Garibaldi. For affirmance -- Justices Clifford and Handler. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J. Handler, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Clifford joins in this opinion.
Today we must decide whether a stepparent can be equitably estopped from denying the duty to provide child support for minor stepchildren after divorcing their natural parent. If equitable estoppel does apply to stepparents' situation, we must also decide what evidence must be presented to establish a cause of action for child support.
Gladys Miller married Jay Miller on December 16, 1972. No children were born of their marriage. During the couple's marriage Gladys' two daughters by her prior marriage lived with the Millers. Gladys and Jay separated on December 12, 1979. In February, 1980, Gladys filed a Verified Complaint seeking dissolution of the Millers' marriage. Although Jay was not the natural or adoptive father of Gladys' daughters, Gladys sought child support from Jay for her children. In her complaint, she alleged that by his actions, Jay had induced the girls to rely on him as their natural father, to their emotional and
financial detriment. By so doing, he had prevented and cut off the girls' relationship with their natural father. Therefore, she claimed he was equitably estopped from denying a duty to pay child support. Jay claimed that although he stood in loco parentis to the children during his marriage, he was merely their stepfather and any legal relationship he had with the children terminated with his divorce from their mother.
The trial court agreed with Gladys. It held that Jay was equitably estopped from denying his duty to support the girls, and required him to pay child support of $75 per week per child. The trial court based its holding primarily on the concept of "emotional bonding." Jay, by his actions, had knowingly and intentionally fostered a bona fide parental relationship with the girls, so that in their minds he became their father. Therefore, he could not avoid the financial obligations flowing from that relationship.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's judgment, primarily because it found that Jay had actively interfered with the normal relationship between the girls and their natural father to the girls' emotional and financial detriment. We granted certification, 94 N.J. 614 (1983).
We conclude that in appropriate cases pendente lite and permanent support obligations may be imposed on a stepparent on the basis of equitable estoppel. In this case, we hold that the facts established at trial are sufficient to impose a pendente lite award but are not sufficient to indicate whether a permanent support obligation should be imposed. We therefore reverse and remand this case to the trial court for further findings of fact and a determination consistent with this opinion.
Prior to her marriage to Jay, Gladys was married to Ralph Febre. Two children were born of that marriage: Michelle, born July, 1963, and Suzette, born July, 1966. Shortly after Suzette's birth in 1966, Gladys separated from Ralph; she divorced him in 1969.
The essential facts concerning Ralph's support of his children are undisputed. Although there was no support provision in the divorce agreement, Ralph continued to support Gladys and the children after the couple's separation until he went to prison on a narcotics charge in 1968. Immediately before going to prison, Ralph gave Gladys $5,000 for the support of his daughters. While he was in prison and after he was released, he continued to express his concern for his children.
Gladys married Jay while Ralph was in prison. After his release, Ralph told Gladys that he wanted to support his daughters. However, when he did send a check to the girls, Jay tore it up. Jay testified that he refused Ralph's money because he was concerned that he and Gladys "would be tied to his illegal activities," presumably meaning Ralph's narcotics activities. Faced with Jay's opposition, Ralph eventually stopped attempting to send money to the children. Thus, during the period of his marriage to Gladys, Jay supported the children and even claimed them as dependents on his 1979 tax return, which he filed after he separated from their mother. During all this time, Ralph did not support the children.
It is also undisputed that throughout the seven years that Jay and Gladys lived together, Jay developed a loving relationship with the two girls. The children came to refer to him as "daddy" and to his mother and father as "grandma" and "grandpa." As the Appellate Division found,
he was an affectionate father and took the girls everywhere. He held the girls out as his own children. He even became a Girl Scout Troop leader, so he could be with them. He enjoyed sports with them and they came to love defendant as a father.
At the trial both children testified separately in camera that they knew Ralph was their natural father, but that they considered Jay their "father" and loved him very much.
Although the Millers discussed the possibility of Jay's adopting the girls, Ralph refused to consent to the adoption. Therefore, the girls' names could not be changed legally to Miller. Nevertheless, although it is disputed who initiated the change,
it is uncontroverted that during the time the girls lived with Jay, they began using the surname Miller at school, and their school records were changed to reflect that their name was Miller. At the time of the Millers' divorce, in contrast, Michelle, a student at the University of South Florida, was registered under the name of Febre, which she also used on her driving license. Since the divorce, both girls have been using the surname Febre.
The Millers disagree as to the extent of the children's contact with their father over the years. Gladys testified that she took the children to visit Ralph once while he was in prison and that he visited the children once at their maternal grandmother's house. This latter visit provoked such opposition from Jay that although Ralph often sought to see the girls thereafter, their mother did not allow them to have any further meetings with him until the summer of 1979. At that time, she realized that her marriage to Jay was over, and she allowed the girls to visit their father in California for six weeks. Jay disputed this testimony; he claimed that the children visited their father several times while he was in prison, and upon his release they had regular contact with him, seeing him during the summers and over Christmas holidays, as well as speaking to him over the telephone and receiving letters from him.
The Appellate Division found from the testimony, and for the purpose of this appeal we find, that
upon Ralph's release from jail he attempted to visit his children but defendant [Jay] strenously opposed any visitation and, in fact, prohibited it. He rejected all offers of Ralph to contribute to the support of his children and tore up a check tendered for that purpose. Ralph desisted from further attempts at visitation or payment of support.
Jay contends that the loving relationship he developed with the girls was not sufficient to impose a financial obligation on him to continue to support the girls after his separation from their mother. He claims that upon the termination of his
marriage to their mother, his financial obligation to the girls ceased.
New Jersey has no statutory requirement imposing a duty of support on a stepparent for his or her spouse's children by a former marriage. Nor did the common law impose a legal obligation on a stepparent to support the children of his or her spouse by another party. Such an obligation arises by a voluntary assumption on the part of the stepparent to support the children. This in loco parentis relationship exists when a stepparent receives a child into the family home under circumstances giving rise to a presumption that he or she will assume responsibility to maintain, rear, and educate the child. A.S. v. B.S., 139 N.J. Super. 366, 369 (Ch.Div.1976), aff'd, 150 N.J. Super. 122 (App.Div.1977). The relationship, however,
exists only so long as the parties thereto, namely the surrogate parent and/or the child, desire that it exist. In that regard, the in loco parentis status differs from natural parenthood or adoption. The latter two permanently affix rights and duties, while the former affixed rights and duties temporary in nature. Schneider v. Schneider, 25 N.J.Misc. 180, 52 A.2d 564 (Ch.1947); D. v. D., 56 N.J. Super. 357 (App.Div.1959). [ Id. at 369-70.]
Thus, in most cases, when a stepparent who stands in loco parentis to a stepchild divorces that child's natural parent, the in loco parentis relationship is deemed terminated and any obligation of support the stepparent has assumed terminates. See 59 Am.Jur. 2d "Parent and Child" § 91 at 190 (1971); see also Amadeo v. Amadeo, 64 N.J. Super. 417, 425 (App.Div.1960) (until stepfather disclaims in loco parentis status, he is responsible for child support of stepchild); D. v. D., 56 N.J. Super. 357, 361-62 (App.Div.1959) (in loco parentis relationship lies within will of stepfather).
Despite the general rule that an in loco parentis relationship terminates upon the intent of the stepparent, courts in certain cases have held that a stepparent's duty to support a spouse's children ...