Your legal duties and responsibilities for step-children
It is commonplace for estranged couples to set up home with a new partner. In most cases, this is beneficial for the child – once they have got used to the changes – and helps provide a settled, family home. But no matter how closely a step-parent becomes involved in the lives of their partner’s children, or how much they contribute to their upbringing, financially or otherwise, they will not automatically gain parental responsibility.
This is particularly relevant when it comes to looking after step-children. For instance, if a step-parent is looking after a child during school holidays and they have an accident needing serious and urgent medical treatment, a step-parent cannot give consent for this to be carried out. This can only come from someone who has parental responsibility.
Step-parents and parental responsibility
Step-parents can acquire parental responsibility through a formal agreement or court order, in a similar way to unmarried fathers. However, step-parents will not have parental responsibility until each person who already has that responsibility, normally the natural parents, have signed the agreement.
On acquiring parental responsibility, a step-parent has the same duties and responsibilities as a natural parent. Parental responsibility is defined as ‘all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which, by law, a parent of a child has in relation to the child and their property’.
Divorce and step-parents
It is often in the best of interests of children for a relationship to continue between them and their step-parent, even if the step-parent is no longer married to their natural parent. Step-parents often want to keep seeing step-children, sometimes alongside any other children of the family. If arrangements cannot be agreed, step-parents can apply to the Court for a child arrangements order to spend time with their step children.
Step-parents cannot acquire parental responsibility once they are divorced from the natural parent.
In some circumstances, a step-parent may have financial obligations to step-children that continue after they are divorced from the children’s natural parent. The Court may also factor in the needs of step-children when deciding on a financial settlement upon divorce. If you are concerned about these issues you should take advice from an experienced family law solicitor.