What Are My Rights As a Step Parent?

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Given the increasing commonality of blended families, a step-parent play a growing role in children’s lives. The Family Court must therefore consider the legal position of a step-parent. The Family Court will often seek to ensure the reality of a child’s life is legally recognised. However, this is only as long as that reality is considered in the best interests of the child, which will always be the Family Court’s paramount concern.

The Family Court focuses on parental responsibilities rather than rights. The purpose of this approach is to prioritise the child at the centre of case. A step-parent may gain ‘parental responsibility’ if the child’s parents made an agreement with the step-parent for them to have parental responsibility. Alternatively, a step-parent may gain ‘parental responsibility’ by making an application to the Family Court. The meaning of parental responsibility is explored below.

A step-parent can apply for a child arrangements order, which governs where a child lives and who they spend time with.

A step-parent can even adopt their step-child, which would put them in the legal position of a so-called ‘natural’ parent.

What is ‘parental responsibility’?

Parental responsibility is a legal status which carries with it the responsibilities a parent has towards a child. It is defined in law as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”.

A child’s parents generally share parental responsibility between them. When they are separated this naturally becomes more difficult. However, in the majority of cases, they will both continue to have parental responsibility. It may become appropriate for one parent’s new partner to be granted parental responsibility. In reality, these applications are rare, despite children often living with their parent’s new partner or spending significant time with them.

Those with parental responsibility may act independently on day to day decisions, but should consult others with parental responsibility on significant decisions such as choice of school or medical care. Each should also provide the other with updates and information about the child’s education, health and upbringing. Of course, if a step-parent gains parental responsibility this increases the number of people who need to be consulted and provided with information. This could complicate matters, but the guiding principle will be the child’s best interests.

If those with parental responsibility disagree about a decision for the child, they may need to apply to the Family Court.

Disputes in this area must be approached in a cautious and proportionate way as the Family Court can be reluctant to decide matters which it considers should not require legal proceedings. Specialist legal advice can assist with the options for resolving these disputes.

Here to Help

If you need advice on any family matter, please get in touch with Tracey Dargan, Partner and Head of Family and Divorce.

Please note the contents of this article are given for information only and must not be relied upon. Legal advice should always be sought in relation to specific circumstances.