There has been a huge transformation in the typical family setup in the last few decades. As a result of social changes the concept of ‘blended families’ has been on the rise. Alternate to the traditional married couple, individuals have increasingly been co-habiting together outside of marriage or entering into civil partnerships and, more recently, gay marriages. Greater social acceptance of divorce also means that the modern family often includes both the biological children of both partners as well as stepchildren. 

There are a number of legal issues that need to be considered when the family set-up is of a complex nature. These can involve questions ranging from parental responsibility and property ownership to inheritance planning. These issues are pertinent for partners as well as children. The combination of factors can lead to significant complexities where, for example, an individual passes away without a will, leaving an unmarried partner and children or stepchildren behind. 

Parental responsibility

Parental responsibility is automatically extended to the biological mother of the child. However, a father will only possess it upon having his name entered in the birth certificate of the child or through mutual agreement with the mother or via a court order. Parental responsibility gives parents a right to make important decisions with respect to the child including education, religious choice, and medical decisions. 

Therefore, it becomes of special importance to understand what rights parents have, particularly when stepparents or partners with children co-habit or adults share a living space with children whose parental responsibility is undertaken by another parent. This is not only important for the purposes of childcare but it can also have implications when decisions are being made about inheritance and property ownership. 

Inheritance and property ownership

Unlike a biological child, in, a stepchild is only entitled to the inheritance and property share of the stepparent where there had been an official adoption, unless specific provision has been made for them by will. Similarly, while married couples and civil partners enjoy rights in each other’s estate by virtue of legislative provision, the same rights do not arise for unmarried cohabiting partners since the so called concept of ‘common law marriage’ does not actually exist. 

If there are no wills and the rules of Intestacy apply then it is only adopted children, legitimated children and illegitimate children who will benefit.

Without legal documentation or a will that extends a property share to a stepchild or partner sharing living household space with the deceased stepparent or partner, an application must be made to the court. Under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 certain individuals can make a claim for ‘reasonable financial provision’. This must be made within six months of the grant of probate so swift action is required on the part of the parties. In such cases, consideration is given to the size of the estate, the age of the applicant, the existence of any special needs along with the level of dependency. However, awards are uncertain and may be far less than a married partner or biological child might expect to inherit under the intestacy rules.

Comment

The modern family setup can be very complex and it is advisable to be aware of your legal rights and obligations, and to make efforts to eliminate ambiguities. This is especially important for unmarried couples or for families with stepchildren of young age, as their future should not be left vulnerable to the fate of future uncertainties.

It is imperative to have written legal proof of agreed rights and obligations and to avoid grey areas that can leave partners and children in a legal turmoil. Co-habitation agreements, wills and other legal contracts can all help if they are created at the outset and before they are needed. Families that have been left in uncertain circumstances following the death of an adult family member should seek immediate legal advice.