10 Nov 2022

Court rules man must keep paying stepdaughter's $24,000 school fees, despite splitting from her mother

2:37 pm on 10 November 2022

By Ric Stevens, Open Justice multimedia journalist of NZ Herald

Gavel showing separation of family and house on dark wooden table

Photo: 123RF

When Nick Sydney was married he paid for his wife's daughter to go to a private school, took her on overseas holidays and lavished presents on her - even a Louis Vuitton handbag.

Her grandmother was amazed at his generosity towards Caitlyn. Her older sister Rose, admitted she was envious because he took her shopping for expensive name-branded clothes and shoes.

But when the marriage ended, Sydney claimed that he only provided for Caitlyn because he couldn't marry her mother, Maya Taylor*, without the girl moving in under the same roof.

He argued that the marriage only lasted four years and two months, and he was never declared Caitlyn's legal guardian.

When Taylor sought financial support to keep sending Caitlyn to her school, at a cost of $24,000 a year, Sydney suggested she should get it from Caitlyn's volatile biological father, who hadn't been part of her life since 2014.

Also, "the Louis Vuitton bag was second-hand and I bought it on Trade Me", he said.

The dispute about whether Sydney should keep supporting Caitlyn financially ended up before Auckland Family Court Judge Andrea Manuel, who said the case posed the question: "Should the estranged husband of the mother of a 15-year-old girl be declared the stepfather of the girl?"

She decided that yes, Sydney was still Caitlyn's stepfather and declared him to be so under Section 99 of the Child Support Act 1991.

"Mr Sydney provided for Caitlyn for about six years. He made a substantial contribution to the cost of her upbringing," Judge Manuel said.

"He did so at first because she came as part of a package with Miss Taylor. However, as time went by, he developed a genuine relationship with her and became a father figure," she said.

"Even if he was equivocal at the beginning of the marriage, she became part of his life and a father-daughter relationship developed," the judge said.

"This is illustrated by the frequent and generous gifts he gave her, the affectionate language he used… the images of them together."

Details of that father-daughter relationship were laid before the court by Caitlyn's mother, who said a step-parent declaration was necessary because she needed financial support if Caitlyn was going to keep going to the private school.

Rose, who had left home, gave evidence that Sydney "absolutely spoilt" Caitlyn - something she was a bit envious about.

"Not only did she live in a home with a swimming pool and a tennis court, but Mr Sydney regularly took her shopping for expensive clothes and shoes," she said.

He paid for their regular holidays, including to overseas destinations, along with her private school fees, Rose said.

Caitlyn's grandmother Lynn Taylor said: "The relationship between Nick and Caitlyn has been close, particularly since Maya and Nick's marriage. Nick has purchased a trampoline, bikes, iPhone. I was always amazed at his generosity toward her."

When Caitlyn gave Sydney a Father's Day card saying that "You are the best dad in the world … I love you to the moon and back", Sydney had it framed and hung next to his bed.

Then, in June 2020, Sydney and Taylor split up.

The judge said that Caitlyn had been upset by losing Sydney as a father figure.

She wanted to keep having contact with him, but Judge Manuel said that was not relevant to the issues before the court.

"As submitted by counsel for Mr Sydney, the purpose of making a step-parent declaration is financial and does not entail emotional responsibilities," the judge said.

Among Sydney's arguments against being declared Caitlyn's stepfather, he said that such a move would establish a "fictional and possibly destructive relationship", and possibly drive a further wedge between them.

*Names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of the people involved for legal reasons. The names used are those used in the published judgement from the Family Court.

*This story originally appeared in the New Zealand Herald.