No matter how attached someone becomes to their step children or how much they contribute to their upbringing, whether financially or emotionally, they will not automatically gain parental responsibility. This is especially relevant when caring for step children because, in the absence of the parent with parental responsibility, if something happened to the child and they required medical treatment whilst in their care for example, the step parent would be unable to consent to this being carried out. So, what rights do step parents have after separation or divorce? This article addresses the issues.
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Can a step-parent acquire parental responsibility?
A step-parent does not automatically acquire parental responsibility for their partner’s children when they marry. But they can obtain parental responsibility by entering into a formal agreement with everyone who holds parental responsibility, so the mother/father, or through a court order. Once the step-parent acquires parental responsibility, the same duties and responsibilities as the natural parents are conferred on them.
These responsibilities encompass all legal rights, powers, duties, and authority that parents have by law in relation to their child. It is important to note that a step-parent cannot get parental responsibility once they are divorced from the child’s natural parent, so a parental responsibility agreement would need to be registered with the relevant authority before the divorce was made final.
How do I apply for parental responsibility?
If you are a step parent who wants to obtain parental responsibility, and everyone who already holds it agrees, then all you need to do is complete a parental responsibility agreement form. You can download this from the gov.uk website.
Once completed, take the form to your local family court, where it will need to be signed and witnessed. You will also need the child’s birth certificate and proof of your identity, such as a driving licence or passport.
You will then need to send 2 copies of the signed form to the Principle Registry of the Family Division in London. It is important to note that you will not obtain parental responsibility until it has been registered and you have been notified by the Registry.
Divorce and step-parents
Even if you didn’t obtain parental responsibility for the child during the marriage, it is often in their best interests to maintain a relationship with a step-parent on divorce.
To paraphrase Cher’s father in the cult movie classic Clueless when he was discussing his step-son Josh, you don’t divorce children. Often, step parents want to remain in their step children’s lives, so if arrangements cannot be agreed, it is possible for a step parent to apply to the court for a child arrangements order. They may do this without having to get the court’s permission provided they lived with the child for three years which did not end more than three months before the date of the application.
There are some limited circumstances when a step parent may have financial obligations towards their step children that continue after divorce. The court may also consider the needs of step children when deciding a financial settlement.
When does a step-parent have financial obligations towards their step children after divorce?
The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) cannot require a step parent to pay maintenance for a step child. However, if the step child was raised as if they were part of a new blended family, consisting of the step parent, natural parent and any children of both parties, the court has some residual power to determine that the step parent should cover some costs. Step parents paying maintenance for their step children is one of the few aspects of child maintenance still under the court’s jurisdiction.
Here, the step parent could be asked to make monthly maintenance payments, lump sum payments, school fees or provide them with a place to live. That said, such financial awards will not overtake the obligation of the natural parents to maintain the child in the first instance. But will be considered in the light of what the absent natural parent is legally obliged to pay. Any step parent contribution will be viewed as a “top-up” to the natural parent’s payments.
My ex is refusing to let me see my step children. Can I go to court?
If you are no longer spending time with your step children because your ex is refusing contact, there are legal routes you can use to re-establish that connection. The longer the matter is left without having contact, the more chance it is that the step child will be in a routine that does not involve you.
In the first instance, contact the parent with care and see if anything can be agreed. If you can approach your ex with a practical and sensible proposal, the more likely they will agree to contact. But if this is not possible, you may have to consider applying for a child arrangements order. In all cases involving children, all parties are encouraged to put the best interests of the children first, and the court will always endeavour to do so.
Can my step children live with me as opposed to their natural parent?
There may be some circumstances where a step child’s natural parent cannot look after them and they should live with you. Or perhaps you feel that your step child is better off living with you after separation and you wish to pursue that.
If there is a dispute as to whom the child should live with, then it may need to be resolved by making an application to the court asking it to make a “live with” order. If you successfully obtain such an order, then you will automatically acquire parental responsibility for your step child. The natural parents will also be parties to the application and will be given an opportunity to respond to it. The court will ultimately decide the matter based on the best interests of the child, which will be considered alongside the welfare checklist.
The information on this website is to be considered a guide and is therefore not legal advice. You use this information with the understanding that Wiselaw does not accept liability for any direct or indirect losses as a result of anyone relying on or acting upon the information on this website. Whilst we endeavour to provide accurate information, Wiselaw does not accept liability for any errors or omissions on this website.