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Step parents – do you have rights and responsibilities?

There are, in this country today, a great many step-parents.  If you are one, do you know your legal position in terms of what you can and cannot authorise when it comes to your step children?

As a step-parent no matter how involved you are in the lives of your partner’s children, or how much you contribute to their upbringing, financially or otherwise, you will not automatically gain parental responsibility.

A step-parent does not acquire parental responsibility for a child simply by being married to the parent of that child. Legally, you might as well be invisible.

Parental responsibility is defined as ‘all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which, by law, a parent of a child has in relation to the child and their property’.

So what happens if you as a step parent regularly care for your partner’s child and they have an accident needing serious and urgent medical attention or the police knock on your door wishing to speak to your step-child?  In short, a step parent cannot give consent for this to be carried out.  This can only come from someone who has parental responsibility.

A step-parent can only acquire parental responsibility for a child in very specific circumstances including:

  • When the court makes an order that the child reside with the step-parent either on their own or with another person, probably the birth parent of the child.  However these types of residence orders which refer to step-parents are not very common. 
  • When the step-parent adopts a child which puts him/her in the same position as a birth parent.
  • Through the signing of a Parental Responsibility Agreement to which all other people with Parental Responsibility consent.  This is a formal document which needs to be signed by all the parties and then registered at court.
  • When the court has made a Parental Responsibility Order following an application by the step-parent.  As in all cases concerning the child the court would base its decision on what was in the best interests of the child.

On acquiring parental responsibility, a step-parent has the same duties and responsibilities as a natural parent but such acquisition does not affect the rights and responsibilities of the other parents with parental responsibility. 

It is perhaps surprising that more use is not made of Parental Responsibility Agreements in favour of step-parents.  Undoubtedly there are many families where step-parents have a very important and long relationship with a step-child, often playing a greater role in their life than a birth parent.

Where there are two birth parents with Parental Responsibility for a child, things can be more complicated as a strained relationship between the birth parents will often be a relevant factor in trying to reach an agreement.

Since the Civil Partnership Act came into force same sex partners in a registered civil partnership can also acquire Parental Responsibility by agreement or a court order.

An unmarried partner is not a step-parent irrespective of how long you may have been together and if you wish to acquire Parental Responsibility for the children in such circumstances you would have to apply for a Residence Order or adopt the child or children.

 By Lisa Burton-Durham