One in three people in the UK is now a step parent, step child, or step sibling. Blended families are now an established part of modern family life but step parents and birth parents are often unaware of the legal implications of these relationships.
In a legal sense step parents are often invisible but the reality can be very different as step parents often live with or look after the children of their spouse or civil partner. In certain situations, for example where a child needs urgent medical treatment, the authorities will need to deal with someone with parental responsibility. Parental responsibility is the most important concept between parents and children. It is defined by the law as “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibility and/or authority which by law a parent has in relation to his or her child”.
A step parent does not automatically obtain parent responsibility for a step-child just by marrying or entering into a civil partnership with the child’s parent. Since 30 December 2005 a step parent who is married to or the civil partner of a parent who has parental responsibility for their child may apply for an order for parental responsibility or may enter into a parental responsibility agreement (under s4 A(1) of the Children Act 1989).
Parental Responsibility Agreement
Step parents can acquire parental responsibility by signing the parental responsibility agreement to which a birth parent (or both birth parents if they both have parental responsibility) consent. This is a formal document which needs to be signed by all the parties and then registered with the court.
Parental Responsibility Order
A step parent may apply to the court for an order granting parental responsibility. When considering the application the court will base its decision on what is in the best interests of the child and will consider the step parent’s connection with the child, the risk of harmful disruption and the consent or otherwise of any others with parental responsibility.
Since the coming into effect of the Civil Partnership Act, same sex partners in a registered civil partnership can also acquire parental responsibility by agreement or a Court Order.
An unmarried step parent who wishes to acquire parental responsibility for their step child would have to apply for a Residence Order or to adopt the step child.
The aquisition of parental responsibility by a step parent does not affect the rights and responsibilities of the other parents with parental responsibility.
There are many situations where a step parent has a long standing relationship and close bond with a step child and it will make legal and practical sense to enhance their legal status by having a parental responsibility agreement (especially when there is only one person with parental reponsibility). There will also be other circumstances where there are two birth parents with parental responsibility who both acknowledge that it is in the interest of the child for the step parent to have parental responsibility as well. Obviously, there will be other cases where there is no agreement and ultimately the overriding consideration the court has to consider on an application made by a step parent for a parental responsibility order, is the welfare of the child.
Given the prevalence of step families in modern family life this is likely to be an area of law with increasing practical significance for birth parents and step parents alike.