The idea of what constitutes a family has come a long way over the last few generations, with blended families, and families with same-sex parents much more common than they used to be. As society’s understanding of marriage changes, so too does the law’s understanding of family. Both courts and legislatures throughout Canada have created laws through legislation or decisions to reflect this evolution. A recent decision from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice looks at whether the stepfather to two children during a fairly short marriage should be considered a parent and therefore be responsible for spousal support and child support following his separation from the mother of the children.
Mother requests child and spousal support from stepfather of children
The parents met and began a relationship in the spring of 2014. They became engaged to be married at the end of 2014 and started living together in May 2015. They were married in September 2015. The mother had two children from a previous relationship, and the stepfather lived in the family home with the mother and children until the parties separated on February 28, 2017. The stepfather last saw the mother and the children one month later. Altogether, the parties lived as a family for a period of 22 months, including 17 months of marriage.
The biological father of the children has not had a significant role in the lives of the children and had not seen the children from the time the mother entered a relationship with the stepfather. Instead, the mother told the court the stepfather had built a relationship with the children that was equal to that of a biological parent. The stepfather told the court that was not the case.
Looking at the relationship between the stepfather and the children
The mother told the court that when she entered into a relationship with the stepfather, they built a “parenting partnership” to care for the children, one of whom is autistic. The mother said that while the stepfather’s work did not allow him to parent much during the day, he actively parented the children outside of work hours. She said the work he contributed to the household included cooking meals, grocery shopping, laundry, household cleaning, work around the house, and taking the children to extracurricular activities. The mother said the only parenting responsibilities the stepfather was not involved in were those related to medical appointments. She also told the court the stepfather took on all responsibilities related to household finances, including sole responsibility for bringing in income as well as managing finances.
As mentioned earlier, one of the children was diagnosed with autism. The mother said the stepfather developed a close relationship with him, taking him to participate in activities such as swimming, and participating in bedtime routines. He performed similar activities with the other child.
Finally, the mother told the court that the children used the stepfather’s surname for all occasions except for on government documents when their legal name was required and that they addressed the stepfather as “dad.” Cards written by the stepfather were provided to the court, where the stepfather mentioned being a blended family and having a future with the mother and children.
Stepfather’s evidence contrasts with evidence provided by mother
The stepfather said the mother had made it clear that the children came with her in a relationship, and that they started calling him “dad” within the first three months of dating. He said he was eager to build a relationship with the mother and thought he had to take on the role of a father in order to do so. He said he was uncomfortable with their use of his surname, but that again, he did not push back against it. He told the court that while he was active in participating in household duties, the mother contributed 80-90% of the parenting time for the children.
Regarding financial management of the household, the father admitted that he was the sole income earner but said he did not directly make purchases for the children, though said the mother may have made purchases for them using a credit card associated with his bank account which he provided to her.
Finally, the father acknowledged the cards presented as evidence by the mother but said they were written out of hopefulness of the future rather than a reflection of where they were as a family at the time.
Balancing narratives that do not match
The court found itself in a position where it had to take the evidence provided by the stepfather or the evidence provided by the mother. This required the court to address the credibility of each of them. The court found that in the instances where the father’s evidence diverged from the mother’s, he would minimize things. At other times, the father said one thing while physical evidence (such as cards) suggested another. Because of this, the court found the father to be less credible than the mother, whose credibility, the court said, it was satisfied with.
The court then went on to look at the factors the Supreme Court of Canada provided in a 1999 decision that can be used to determine whether a family unit was established. While not exhaustive, these factors include:
a) Participation of the children and purported parent in family events;
b) Purported parent’s financial contribution towards the children;
c) Purported parent’s participation in household duties related to the children;
d) Purported parent’s involvement in the discipline of the children;
e) Children’s use of purported parent’s surname;
f) Purported parent’s presentation, explicit and implicit, of himself as parent to the children, to family, and to the community;
g) Purported parent’s consideration and related efforts to adopt the children;
h) Reference to the purported parent as “dad”;
i) Length of the purported parent’s relationship with the children;
j) Age of the children when the relationship commenced; and,
k) Nature of the children’s relationship with their biological father.
The court looked at the evidence it was provided and in considering it alongside the Supreme Court of Canada’s factors, determined that the stepfather had treated the children as his own. This led to an order for the father to pay both child and spousal support to the mother.
Howie Johnson Barristers & Solicitors can help you with child support or spousal support issues
Our experienced team of family law lawyers routinely helps clients on matters related to spousal support and child support. To speak with a member of our team, please reach us online or call us at 519-973-1500. We look forward to seeing how we can help you and your family.