Step-Parents and Parental Rights: Exploring The Legal Options

In many families you will find step-parents. Sadly though, step-parents get precious few rights in relation to each child, legally. Step-parents frequently have an important role in the life of the child. Since they are involved in the day to day minutiae of a child’s life, living and caring for the child. Also step-parents help to provide financially for the child or children. With all this involvement, one would have thought they would have some legal stance if only because of the bonds they have with them. Sadly, no. When we look at legislation. the rights that step-parents have are minimal to non-existent.

It is interesting to look at the definition of parental responsibility. According to the Children Act 1989, it defines parental responsibility as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority” that a parent legally has in respect of the child concerned.

It includes providing materially for the child, including the food they eat, the clothes they wear and providing a home to live in for the child or children. Not only that, it includes decisions that have to be made for a child, such as which school they will attend, which religion they will be brought up in, which medical treatment is appropriate. It could be that multiple people have parental responsibility over the child, then they all have to be consulted regarding the decisions.

So, who does have parental responsibility?

Mothers, the biological mother gets automatic parental responsibility.

Biological fathers have parental authority IF they are recorded by birth certificate, and the child was born after 1st December 2003, or if they are married when the child is born.

It is possible that a biological father doesn’t meet these rules – but he can get parental authority by approaching the court and acquiring a parental authority order.

It is worth noting that the step-parent doesn’t acquire parental authority even if they are married to a biological parent.

Acquiring Parental Authority

One way to get parental authority is by a Parental Responsibility Agreement. It needs to be registered at the court and as such is a legal document. Every party that has parental responsibility has to agree and sign the agreement. It is then registered at the local court.

Another method of acquiring parental responsibility is by a Parental Responsibility Order. It’s an order that comes from court. The local court will investigate the step-parents relationship and commitment in reference to “their” child. The court should also take the other people with parental consents opinion on the matter. Since these orders remain effective even if the relationship with a mother or father ends, they are not made very often.

A third way is by Adoption Order. It is another order that the court decides on. Both step-parent and biological parent can apply together, and they have to demonstrate an enduring relationship. It doesn’t matter if the couple are legally marrieds. If the parent (the biological but non-custodial one) agrees, or has passed away, it can be granted. Interestingly, a step-parent then becomes a parent and this means anyone else who wants to be a parent, including the biological one, has to apply to be a parent. Yes, a parent has to apply to be a parent, legally!

This Adoption Order means that a step-parent legally becomes parent to their child. The responsibilities and duties of the care of the child becomes theirs.

Needless to say, when any petition relating to a child reaches court, the first priority is the child. Step-parents must show they are committed to the care and nurturing of the child or children, and the court must be convinced the arrangements for the child are in its best interests.

If you are a step-parent and want advice on your rights, contact us to discuss your options.


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