What is a step parent?
To be considered a step parent, you need to have been married or in a civil partnership with one of the child's biological parents. If you have lived with one of the child’s parents without getting married, your rights will differ.
When you have lived as a family unit, you will undoubtedly form a strong bond with your partner's child, and most likely have 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.
Do step parents have parental responsibility for their stepchildren?
Step parents don’t automatically have parental responsibility for their stepchildren.
If you are co-parenting a child that is not biologically yours on a daily basis whilst living with one of the child’s parents, 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 step parents 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 a child, including decisions relating to 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.
Obtaining parental responsibility using a parental responsibility agreement
You can obtain parental responsibility by entering into a Parental responsibility agreement with the other parent(s) of a child in order to be legally and amicably awarded these rights. This agreement means that everyone who already has parental responsibility agrees to let you have it, too. An agreement can be completed and witnessed by all those with parental responsibility before it is taken 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 only some people with parental responsibility agree, you must apply to the court for a parental responsibility order. Before you do this, you will be required to have attended mediation. Anyone with parental responsibility for the child will need to be a party to the application and must receive a copy so that they’re able to respond to it. The court can then decide whether to grant parental responsibility based on the child's best interests.
For more information, read Parental responsibility.
Can I gain parental responsibility by adopting?
Another way to gain parental responsibility is to adopt your stepchild. This is known as ‘partner adoption’.
In order to be able to adopt your stepchild, they must have been living with you and your spouse/partner (ie their parent) for at least 6 months.
If an adoption order is granted, you will gain parental responsibility. The adoption order will, however, remove parental responsibility from anyone else who has parental responsibility for the child (eg the child’s other parent). The adoption order will also cause all other court orders in relation to the child and their birth parent (eg a child arrangements order saying when the parent may visit the child) to be cancelled.
For more information on the adoption process, read Adoption.
What happens if the child’s parent dies?
Sadly, there may come a time when you or your spouse/partner dies. In this case, parental responsibility will remain with those who survive who already have parental responsibility. If you have a parental responsibility agreement in place, this will continue. However, you may be required to share parental responsibility with the child’s remaining biological parent or anybody else who has parental responsibility.
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 court will decide the matter.
Your spouse may choose to appoint you in their will as the testamentary guardian of the child in the event of their death. This will act as an indication of who they would want the child to be cared for after their death. In England and Wales, this does not automatically pass parental responsibility to you if there is another surviving parent, as the surviving parent will still have equal rights. In Scotland, this does automatically pass parental responsibility to you, even if there is another surviving parent.
For more information, read Appointing a guardian.
What happens if the child’s parent and step parent divorce?
If you separate from the natural parent of the child, you might wonder what rights you then have to continue a relationship with the child. If you are not being given time with the child after a relationship breakdown, it is important that you seek legal advice as quickly as possible. The longer the matter is left, the greater the chance the child will form a new routine without you and 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 amicably. If the relationship is complicated, you may need a solicitor to do this for you.
Mediation may be one option for resolving any disputes and is a necessary formality if you need to go through the courts for a resolution. In this case, the court can put together a child arrangements order (in England and Wales) or contact order (in Scotland) to allow you to see the child during specified days and times. When making decisions about such court orders, the court will consider the child's feelings; 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 step parent, you can often feel as though a 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.