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Harmon v. Department of Social and Health Services

September 16, 1996


Appeal from Superior Court of Snohomish County. Docket No: 93-2-05856-8. Date filed: December 15, 1994. Judge signing: Hon. Joseph Thibodeau.

Authored by Mary K. Becker. Concurring: William W. Baker, Susan R. Agid. Agid, J. (concurring in the result)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Becker

BECKER, J. -- Appellant Harmon's minor stepchildren voluntarily left his home. Under the common law, that event would end his duty to support them. But under the family support statute, a stepparent's duty of support continues until dissolution of the marriage, legal separation, or death.

Because the statute has clearly and unambiguously changed the common law as to the events that will terminate a stepparent's obligation, we affirm an order requiring Harmon to pay child support.

Edward Harmon's wife, Darlene, divorced Tom Dooley in 1984. She was awarded custody of their two daughters, who were six and seven at the time.

Darlene married Edward Harmon in 1985. The Harmons and the girls lived together as a family for the next seven years. The girls moved out of the Harmon home in 1992 and moved in with Tom Dooley and his new wife, Linda.

Later that same year, the court granted custody of the girls to Tom Dooley, their natural father. The custody order did not set child support.

After he was awarded custody, Dooley asked the Department of Social and Health Services to establish a child support obligation for the Harmons. The Department served Edward Harmon with a notice and finding of financial responsibility pursuant to RCW 74.20A.055. Harmon objected to the notice and requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. The ALJ ruled that Harmon's support obligation ended when the girls left his home. The Department petitioned for administrative review. The Review Judge reversed the ALJ, concluding that Harmon remained obligated to contribute to his stepchildren's support under RCW 26.16.205. Harmon petitioned the superior court for judicial review. The superior court upheld the Review Judge's decision and dismissed Harmon's petition. He appeals.

The statutory support duty of stepparents arose when, in 1969, the Legislature added the words "including stepchildren" to the family support statute, RCW 26.16.205. *fn1 On its face, this statute requires stepparents to contribute to their stepchildren's support until divorce, legal separation, or death:

The expenses of the family and the education of the children, including stepchildren, are chargeable upon the property of both husband and wife, or either of them, and they may be sued jointly or separately. When a petition for dissolution of marriage or a petition for legal separation is filed, the court may, upon motion of the stepparent, terminate the obligation to support the stepchildren. The obligation to support stepchildren shall cease upon the entry of a decree of dissolution, decree of legal separation, or death. *fn2

Notwithstanding the statute's plain language, a 1992 decision of this court, In re Marriage of Farrell *fn3, holds that a stepparent's support obligation may be terminated by an event not specifically included in the statute; i.e., the voluntary departure of the stepchild from the stepparent's home. Farrell's facts are virtually identical to those in this case. Anthony and Irene Farrell divorced in 1977. The trial court granted Irene custody of their two daughters, Joeal and Michelle, and ordered Anthony to pay monthly child support until the girls reached majority or were emancipated. In 1980 Irene married Edward Spencer. Both girls lived with the Spencers. In 1989 Michelle, by then a teenager, left home. She moved in with the Brewers, a couple she was acquainted with but not related to. The Brewers eventually petitioned for and were granted custody of Michelle. The court ordered Michelle's stepfather, Edward Spencer, as well as both of her biological parents, to contribute to her support. The Spencers appealed, claiming that Edward Spencer's obligation to support Michelle ended once she no longer lived with him. *fn4

The Farrell court first considered the common-law rule. Under the common law, a stepparent becomes obligated by establishing an in loco parentis relationship with the child. The support obligation thus assumed is temporary, lasting only so long as the in loco parentis relationship continues. *fn5 Either the child or the stepparent may decide to sever the relationship. *fn6 Under the common-law rule, Michelle terminated her in loco parentis relationship with Edward Spencer when she left his home, and by so doing she terminated his common-law duty of support, too. *fn7

The Farrell court next considered whether the statute had displaced the common law, and concluded that it had not. Accordingly, the court ruled that Edward Spencer, though still married to Michelle's mother, no longer had a duty to support Michelle. In determining that the common law remained in effect, the court relied on the Supreme Court's earlier decision in Van Dyke v. Thompson. *fn8

Pivotal in Van Dyke was the rule that the Legislature must choose clear and unambiguous language in order to depart from the common law. In that case, the Department of Social and Health Services argued that under the statute as amended, a stepparent who had never resided with his spouse's children had become liable for their support. In order to become obligated for support under the common law, a stepparent must intentionally and factually assume the role of parent. *fn9 The construction proposed by the Department in Van Dyke was thus at odds with the common law. The statute does not, in clear and unambiguous language, set forth a new rule redefining how the duty of support arises. Accordingly, the Van Dyke court did not construe the statute as providing that a person will ...

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