In a groundbreaking new decision, the Colorado Court of Appeals has ruled for the first time that a non-parent can be ordered to pay child support to the child’s biological parent. A.C.H.1In re: Matter of A.C.H., 2019 COA 43. In short, a person who seeks court-ordered parental rights should also be required to pay child support for the child.
Is a “Psychological Parent” a Parent for Child Support Purposes?
In what seems a bit of a stretch to reach a just result, the court first noted that a third party who is awarded parenting time under C.R.S. 14-10-123 is commonly referred to as a “psychological parent,” and since the term “parent” is not defined by the child support statute, it includes someone who sought and was awarded court-ordered parenting time.
In A.C.H., the mother had a 3-month old son from a prior relationship at the time she started dating the man. Her son’s biological father was absent from his life. The parties later had a daughter, and lived together as a family for three years after her birth.
Upon separation, the mother willingly let the man exercise equal parenting over both children, without a court order. When the mother decided to move to Texas, the man sought an allocation of parental responsibilities over her son, pursuant to C.R.S. 14-10-123.
The trial court found that the child was well-bonded with the man, found him to be his psychological parent, and awarded him parental rights. However, the court denied the mother’s request for child support, finding that it could not impose a child support obligation absent a “legal parent-child relationship.”
The Court of Appeals noted that while no reported decision in Colorado had ever required a psychological parent to pay support to a biological parent, there was also no reported decision analyzing whether a “psychological parent” is included in the term “parent” under C.R.S. 14-10-115. The court concluded that it did:
“When a psychological parent occupies circumstances equivalent to those of a legal parent, it is equitable to impose financial obligations on him or her, pursuant to the factors outlined in the statute.”A.C.H.2In re: Matter of A.C.H., 2019 COA 43, ¶ 16.
The Court found it was incongruous for a person to ask the court for parental benefits without also having parental responsibilities, i.e. child support:
“with the privileges of parenting should go the duties, including financial support. We cannot embrace a situation in which a psychological parent who fights for and obtains all the same responsibilities of a legal parent does not also assume the responsibility to pay support.”A.C.H.3In re: Matter of A.C.H., 2019 COA 43, ¶ 33.
Limited Ruling Not Basis for Expanding Child Support Obligation
Finally, the court realized that it was breaking new ground, but cautioned trial judges that the decision was not to be taken as a green light to order non-parents to pay support, particularly guardians. The ruling only applied to those who seek parental rights under C.R.S. 14-10-123:
“We emphasize that our opinion is limited to those psychological parents who have (1) established themselves as ‘parents,’ rather than ‘guardians’; and (2) sought and received an intended-to-be-permanent allocation of parental responsibilities. We are not creating a new class of stepparent obligors, nor are we suggesting that the mere existence of a psychological parent-child relationship, on its own, establishes a support obligation under section 14-10-115.”A.C.H.4In re: Matter of A.C.H., 2019 COA 43, ¶ 36.
Appellate Judges Listened to Spider-Man’s Uncle
With the A.C.H. decision, the Court of Appeals took Uncle Ben’s advice to Peter Parker (“Remember, with great power comes great responsibility”) and applied it to family law: with parental power comes parental responsibility.
While A.C.H. was the first time a non-parent has been ordered to pay child support to an actual parent, there have been cases where psychological parents were ordered to pay support to other psychological parents. Colorado has a 25-year history of requiring non-parents to pay support under limited circumstances. For a comprehensive discussion of the relevant statutes and appellate decisions, see the Child Support and Third Party Non-Parents article in the Colorado Family Law Guide.