October 23, 2015

Do you know your rights as a step-parent?

By Kate Banerjee, head of our Children Department

In these days of ‘blended families’, it is not uncommon for a spouse to form a very close, loving bond with a child or children from their other half’s previous relationship.

In fact, many step-parents often have far more involvement in their upbringing than the other biological parent and consider themselves a legitimate stakeholder in their wellbeing and future.

We have discussed the fall-out of marriage break-up and separation on parents and children in earlier blogs, but what happens to step-parents if the relationship ends? What are their rights – and what should they do to ensure that they are taken seriously when seeking contact or even residence?

In the eyes of the law, a step-parent does not automatically have any rights or responsibilities just because they are married to – or in a civil partnership with – a parent who holds parental responsibility. Such situations can not only present emotional upsets – they also present practical difficulties if for example, there is an emergency and the natural parent is unavailable.

A solution for the step-parent in question is to apply to the court for an order for parental responsibility – or enter into a formal agreement with the natural parent (or both parents if responsibility is jointly held). This must be signed by all parties and then registered with the courts.

Successfully achieving parental responsibility will also improve a step-parent’s chances of success should they ever have to apply for a contact or residence order. It also enables them to act in place of a parent in many situations.  However, a step-parent does not need to have already obtained parental responsibility to apply for a child arrangements order.

The court’s overriding concern will always be the children’s’ best interests. With this in mind, before granting parental responsibility, it will examine the relationships and family dynamics along with any child support, the objections of a natural parent and, often, the views of the under-18s involved.

To be successful, a step-parent will have to demonstrate an established commitment and bond, which can usually be shown by living together as a family or spending a lot of time with their step-child or step-children.

Unmarried partners can best ensure that they always remain part of a child’s life by applying to adopt their step-child.

It is also worth bearing in mind that, while gaining parental responsibility brings duties, it never diminishes the rights of either natural parent that also holds it.

Families can be complicated at the best of times and the step-parent issue is one that requires careful navigation to ensure the right outcomes for the children involved.

Our dedicated children team is made up of some of the most experienced professionals. If you have any comments, queries or concerns on divorce related issues, leave a comment below, call the team at Jones Myers on 0113 246 0055 or tweet us on @helpwithdivorce.