When blended families break up: Step-parenting contributions in a property settlement

While the premise that a stepparent should receive an adjustment for their support of a non-biological child may seem unpalatable to some, the reality is that these are real contributions which cannot be ignored when assessing the respective contributions of parties to a relationship.

In Robb & Robb [1994] FamCA 136; (1995) FLC 92-555, the parties commenced cohabitation together in 1979. At that time, the wife had two children of a previous marriage aged seven and four years of age. Those children left the matrimonial home in 1989 and 1990, respectively. As such, there was a little over a decade during which the wife’s children resided with the parties and during which the husband made both financial and non-financial contributions to their welfare.

At first instance, the trial judge found that an adjustment should be made in the husband’s favour for his contribution to the children under section 75(2)(o) of the Family Law Act 1975. The wife then appealed his Honour’s decision on the grounds that his Honour failed to give any weight to the financial and non-financial contributions made by the appellant in her role as homemaker and parent for the care of the two children.

When deciding whether the trial judge erred in making an adjustment in the husband’s favour for his contributions to the stepchildren, the Full Court of the Family Court (as it was then known) found that:

1. The wife had a legal duty to maintain the children of her prior marriage, a duty which had a primacy over the duty of any other person other than that of the biological father of those children;

2. The wife’s contributions to the welfare of the children was merely her honouring the legal duty which she owed to the children; and

3. The husband had no such legal duty and was acting essentially as a volunteer assisting the wife in discharging her legal obligations to care for the children.

As such, the Full Court found that the trial judge was correct to make an adjustment in favour of the husband. The principles espoused by the Full Court in Robb & Robb have since been adopted by the Family Court of Australia (as it was then known) in decisions such as Jarrott & Jarrott [2007] FamCA 1002, which saw the husband’s financial contributions to the wife’s son’s schooling considered a contribution to be taken into consideration when assessing the overall contributions of the parties.

As is evident from the above, the Court is open to making adjustments to parties as a result of their contributions toward the welfare of a stepchild. The significance of the contribution and adjustment to be made however will be determined on the facts of a particular case and we recommend seeking tailored legal advice in relation to what that adjustment may be.