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Blended and stepfamilies — parenting apart

We answer some questions that may cause concern for separating blended families.

What can you do when your blended family separates and each family goes their separate ways? Can you still be involved in parenting decisions for the children you have cared for or jointly cared for? Can you still see them? Do you have a financial responsibility to contribute to their upbringing?

These are all questions that many separating blended families worry about. Step-parents often question their status, as they are not the biological parent.

First steps

The most important initial step is to try to engage in open communication with your former partner. The children may already be spending time with their other biological parent and it is important to respect this.

We suggest trying to find an arrangement that will enable the child to spend time with the step-parent that they have become so used to living with, and the step-parent’s own children. Perhaps create a calendar which can be shared with the child (depending upon their age), so they have an easy reference point. The arrangement might involve the step-parent continuing to take the child to/from any activities that they have previously been involved. Be prepared to compromise and be flexible.

Child arrangements orders

If an agreement cannot be reached, and non-court resolution options such as mediation have been  considered and perhaps exhausted, an application to the court for a child arrangements order may be made. 

A child arrangements order seeks to regulate the arrangements for the care of the child, specifically where they will live and the time they will spend with the parent they are not living with. Arrangements can include overnight and day visit arrangements, indirect contact by letter, email or telephone, or FaceTime/WhatsApp video/Zoom.

The order will last until the child is 16 years old or 18 in certain circumstances. The welfare and best interests of the children are the court’s paramount consideration. One of the factors that the court may take into account is the child’s wishes and feelings.

As the child’s step-parent you do not need to seek the court’s permission before making the application if you are married or in a civil partnership to the other parent, have acquired parental responsibility previously, or if unmarried or not in civil partnership, the child has been living with you for at least three years during the last five years (and within the last three months). Otherwise, you will need the permission of the court.

Within the application, you will need to include as a ‘respondent’ to your application every person who has parental responsibility for the child. This usually includes the biological parents. 

There may already be a child arrangements order in place between the child’s two biological parents. Consider how your proposals will affect this and be prepared to provide further information as to how your proposal will work alongside this and why it is in the child’s best interests.

Parental responsibility

Parental responsibility is defined in the Children Act as ‘all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property’. If the step-parent does not already have this, they should consider obtaining parental responsibility. It will give the step-parent a proper legal standing to enable involvement in the child’s school life, in respect of medical treatment, or religious upbringing, for example.

The step-parent must be married to the parent to acquire parental responsibility by way of standalone agreement, court order or in a civil partnership. It is possible to enter into a formal parental responsibility agreement with the other legal parent(s) and, if only one parent has parental responsibility for the child, then only that parent’s consent will be required. The parental responsibility agreement must be signed and witnessed by a magistrate, magistrate’s clerk or an officer of the court.

If the other legal parent will not agree, then the step-parent can apply to the court for a parental responsibility order. In considering whether to make the order, the court will consider the step-parent’s commitment to the child, involvement in their life, whether or not the other legal parents agree and the risk of disruption to the child if the order is made or not made.

Child maintenance

The Child Maintenance Service cannot require a step-parent to pay child maintenance. 

If the step-parent is named in a child arrangements order as a person with whom the child lives, then they could apply to the court for child maintenance. 

If the child’s biological parent and the step-parent were married or in a civil partnership, as part of the divorce or dissolution the court could take account of the biological parent’s needs which include providing for the child as part of the final financial order.

Non-court dispute resolution

If the separating parties are unable to reach terms of agreement with regard to any of the matters set out above, it is important to consider the range of different methods of resolution that are available. This includes mediation, collaborative family law, family therapy, family consultants, discussions assisted by solicitors, arbitration, and an application to the court. 

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If you have any further questions about issues affecting step parents and the children of step parents, please contact our child law solicitors.

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