Family relationships can be tricky in any situation, but they can be especially difficult to navigate if you are the stepparent of a child instead of being biologically related to them. This can leave you wondering what your rights are when it comes to the child, or if you have any rights at all in law.
What is a stepparent?
To be considered a stepparent, you need to have been married or in a Civil Partnership with one of the biological parents of the child concerned. If you have lived with the parent without getting married, your rights will be different.
When you have lived as a family unit, you will undoubtedly form a strong bond with the child of your partner, and most likely loved them and cared for them as if they were your own. However, you may not always be treated with the same status as a biological parent in the eyes of the law, and this can change the rights you have to care for them and what your entitlements are if the relationship ends.
Parental responsibility for a stepchild
If you are co-parenting on a daily basis for a child that is not biologically yours whilst living with the child’s mother or father, you may want to look at obtaining legal rights for that child. Some people can fall into the trap of thinking that simply marrying the child’s parent gives them certain legal rights in relation to the child, but this is not actually the case.
Most stepparents will want to obtain the legal right of Parental Responsibility. This gives you all the legal rights, duties and powers that parents have in the eyes of the law. Parental Responsibility will give you the right to be part of the decision-making aspects of raising the child, including their last name, schooling, religion, residential location, and medical treatments. It will also give you the right to be kept informed about the child from their school or doctor and the right to give consent to aspects of their care. You can also be party to any legal processes or court proceedings involving the child.
Parental responsibility agreement
You can obtain a Parental Responsibility Agreement with the other parents of the child in order to be legally and amicably be awarded these rights. This Agreement means that everyone who already has Parental Responsibility agrees to let you have them too. An Agreement can be completed and witnessed by all those with Parental Responsibility before taking it to the court office with the child’s birth certificate and proof of identity. The form can then be signed and witnessed by a member of the Court staff and copies will be registered at the Principal Registry of the Family Division of the High Court.
If not everyone with Parental Responsibility agrees to this, you will have to apply to the court for a Parental Responsibility order. Before you do this, you will be required to have attended mediation. Anyone else with Parental Responsibility for the child will need to be a party to the application and receive a copy in order to allow them to respond to it. The court can then decide whether to grant the Parental Responsibility based on the best interests of the child.
The death of a natural parent
Sadly, there may come a time when you or your spouse may pass away. In this case, all of those who currently have Parental Responsibility will remain with those who survive. If you have a Parental Agreement in place, this will continue, however, you may be required to share this with the remaining biological parent. If there is no dispute, you may be able to continue caring for the child. In the event of a dispute as to who the child should live with, the matter will need to be decided by the court.
Your spouse may choose to appoint you as the testamentary guardian of the child in the event of their death, which will act as an indication of who they would want the child to be cared for after their death. This does not automatically pass Parental Responsibility to you if there is another surviving parent as they will still have equal rights.
If you separate from the natural parent of the child, you might find yourself wondering what rights you then have to continue a relationship with the child. If you are not being given time with the child after the relationship breakdown it is important that you seek legal advice as quickly as possible. The longer the matter is left, the greater the chance that the child will form a new routine without you and could then conclude that they do not wish to see you.
You should try and stay in contact with the parent and attempt to reach an agreement between you in an amicable way. If the relationship is difficult, you may need a solicitor to do this for you.
Mediation may be one option to resolve any disputes and is a necessary formality if you need to go through the courts for a resolution. In this case, a Child Arrangements Order can be put together by the court to allow you to see the child on days and times. The court will take into consideration the feelings of the child, their emotional, educational, and physical needs, the effect of a change of circumstances, their age, sex and background and any risk of suffering.
As a stepparent, you can often feel as though the child is your own, but it is important to remember that this is not the case in the eyes of the law. It can be a difficult conversation to have but establishing your legal rights early on can make your future relationship with the child, the authorities, and the other parent much easier during your relationship and at the end of it, should that be a factor.
Ask a lawyer if you have any questions.