Parental responsibilities for step-parents
Families can often change following a relationship breakdown and/or divorce. Often, new partners become part of the larger blended family. These new partners can become the de facto parent of children. Yet many step-parents do not have parental responsibility for the children for whom they are caring in these new blended families.
What is Parental Responsibility?
Parental responsibility means all of the rights and responsibilities that a parent has for a child in law. Practical examples include the right to speak with the child’s doctor, make decisions regarding medical treatment, make decisions regarding education and religious upbringing and the name by which they are known. It enables a parent to make the day-to-day decisions regarding a child and enable that parent to discuss decisions relating to their upbringing with any professionals involved with the child.
When considering whether the status of a step-parent should be protected many people will immediately think of adoption. Adoption is a permanent step which gives the adoptive parent the same parental rights and responsibilities for a child that they would have if they were the biological parent. It is however important to realise that the making of the Adoption Court Order has the effect of bringing to an end the parental responsibility of anyone else that had parental responsibility prior to the adoption i.e. the natural parents and their wider family such as grandparents. It is not always suitable for new families.
Effect of Adoption
If the child’s legal relationship to the other birth parent is lost due to an adoption it will also end their right to maintenance and inheritance from that parent. It is for this reason that step-parent adoptions only really work if the other parent has died, is absent or cannot be found.
It will not normally be possible for a step-parent to adopt their step-child if the non-resident parent is still a part of that child’s life because the non-resident parent’s consent would be required. Such a parent is often unwilling to give up their parental responsibility and legal relationship with their child. The importance of a child retaining as close a relationship with both birth parents is well recognised by both the Courts and child development experts. This will take precedence over a consideration such as whether the parents were married or not. This is another reason why step-parent adoption will only be suitable in a limited number of circumstances.
When adopting a step child then on the making of the Adoption Court Order, you acquire parental responsibility and you become the legal parent of that child forever. The child then acquires legal rights against you for maintenance and inheritance. You should also be aware that if your relationship with the birth parent were to end, your legal responsibility to your adopted child would continue.
Whether to adopt
In making your decision about whether or not to adopt your step-child, you should have regard to the following:
- The child’s wishes and feelings;
- The other birth parent’s wishes and feelings;
- The consequences of ending the child’s legal relationship with the other parent and their wider family i.e. grandparents.
- The reasons for wanting to seek to adopt the step-child and the impact on that child of the adoption.
Alternatives to step-parent adoption
There are alternatives to step-parent adoption which are often less contentious, simpler and more cost-effective.
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 has introduced other ways to give the step-parent legal status in respect of the child without ending the child’s legal relationship with the other parent. For example, if you are a step-parent and you wish to formalise your relationship with your partner’s children, you may wish to consider the following:
- A Parental Responsibility Agreement or Order (please note that if the other birth parent has parental responsibility, you will either need their agreement to you acquiring parental responsibility or a Court Order). A Parental Responsibility Agreement will have the effect of giving the step-parent parental responsibility for the child so that they have the rights and responsibilities for the child as outlined above without automatically removing those rights from others
- A Child Arrangement Order stating that the child lives with the step-parent would have the effect of giving the step-parent the same legal rights as parental responsibility for so long as that Order remained in place, which could be until the child is 18 years of age. This order used to be known as a Residence or Contact Order. As a step-parent you would require the Court’s permission to issue this application in the first place.
Rayden Solicitors can advise in relation to Parental Responsibility Agreements, Orders and/or Child Arrangement Orders. If you have any questions regarding the alternatives to step-parent adoption, please do not hesitate to contact Rayden Solicitors.
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