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Step-parents and the breakdown of a family

This article is intended to provide a useful guide to step-parents in respect of their rights and responsibilities, regarding their step-child(ren).

The breakdown of a relationship is a difficult time for any family. For step-parents, the legal position can be less clear. This article is intended to provide a useful guide to step-parents in respect of their rights and responsibilities and the steps that they can take to maintain a relationship with their step-child(ren).

Definition of a step-parent

The legal definition of a step-parent is a person who is married to, or in a civil partnership with, the natural parent of a child. A step-parent has no automatic legal status. However, they do have certain rights and responsibilities upon the breakdown of a relationship.

It should be noted that even where a person is in a serious committed relationship with the biological parent of a child, if they are not married to or in a civil partnership with, they will not fall within the legal definition of a “step-parent”.

Step-parents and parental responsibility

Parental responsibility enables a person to make decisions in respect of a child’s upbringing, even after separation. In England and Wales, a step-parent does not automatically inherit parental responsibility. A step-parent can acquire parental responsibility in one of two ways:

  1. If they are married to, or a civil partner of, a parent of the child who has parental responsibility; and
    1. They enter into a parental responsibility agreement with all parents who have parental responsibility and file it with the Central Family Court. or
    2. They obtain a court order granting parental responsibility.
  2. If they are named by the court in a Child Arrangements Order (CAO) as one of the following:
    1. A person with whom the child is to live.
    2. A person with whom the child is to spend time with or otherwise have contact and the court names the step-parent as a person with parental responsibility.

Once a step-parent acquires parental responsibility, they acquire the same duties and responsibilities as the natural parents.

Adoption of a step-child

It is also possible for a step-parent to apply to adopt their step-child(ren). If the other biological parent is still alive, this is a serious and complex process as it will extinguish the parental responsibility of the other biological parent.

Contact with a step-child

If contact between a step-parent and a step-child(ren) breaks down following separation, there are various options available to a step-parent. Court proceedings are an option — however, they should be viewed as a last resort.

Alternatives to an application to court

A court application can place immense pressure on all parties concerned and can, on occasion, raise the temperature, making it more difficult to repair strained relationships. It may be beneficial to try to keep an open dialogue with any biological parent of the child, with a view to trying to achieve an amicable resolution directly. It can often also help to talk matters through with a third party such as a family therapist/counsellor.

There are a wide range of non-court based solutions, such as mediation, collaborative law, arbitration or solicitor-led negotiations. Such processes are sometimes referred to as alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Applying to Court

If alternative dispute resolution discussions ultimately breakdown, a step-parent has the option of applying to court for a Child Arrangements Order (CAO) to determine where a child is to live and how often they should spend time with another parent or person.

If the person intending to bring the application does not fall within the legal definition of a step-parent or does not have parental responsibility, they will need to seek leave (permission) of the court to apply for a CAO, except in limited circumstances.

A copy of the application will be served on anyone else who has parental responsibility for the child and if objections are raised, they may need to attend a court hearing where the judge will hear evidence from all parties.

When considering the application, the court will consider all the circumstances of the case and will undertake a careful analysis of what is in the child’s best interests. They will also take into account what is known as “The Welfare Checklist”. This includes:

  • The ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child in light of their age and understanding;
  • Their physical, emotional and educational needs;
  • The likely effect on them of any change in circumstances;
  • Their age, sex, background and any individual characteristics which may be relevant
  • Any harm they have suffered or are at risk of suffering;
  • How capable each of the parties are at meeting the child’s needs;
  • The range of powers available to the court.

There are various different orders the Court can make, the most common being direct (face-to-face) contact. However, sometimes the court will deem indirect contact to be more appropriate, either on a short term or long term basis. Indirect contact can include letters and telephone/video contact. If for example, a significant period of time has passed since the step-parent and the step-child(ren) last spent time together then the court may be inclined to order a period of indirect contact, before contact can then progress to face-to-face contact. Ultimately the court will only make an order if it considers that it would be better for the child than making no order at all.

Financial responsibilities of a step-parent

The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) has jurisdiction to deal with child maintenance that is to be paid by a “natural” parent and does not have jurisdiction to order a step-parent to maintain a step-child.

However, upon divorce or dissolution, when considering the marital finances, the court has the power to consider applications for a step-parent to maintain any child that has been raised as a “child of the family”.

Any such applications are considered in the light of what the absent natural parent is legally obliged to pay. Any award for child maintenance to be paid by a step-parent will be a “top up” to the maintenance paid by the natural parent.

If you are a step-parent and you wish to obtain further advice in relation to contact with your step-children or your obligations, or if you are a parent who has been served with a court application by a step-parent please do not hesitate to contact us.

If you'd like further guidance on a step parents rights and responsibilities, please get in touch with one of our expert family law solicitors.

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