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Legal Advice for Stepparents

Legal Advice for Stepfamilies


Families come in all shapes and sizes and stepfamilies have become more common in modern life. When two families come together to form a blended family the parents will want to do everything they can to look after their family unit.

A step-parent can play an important role in a child’s life but, they don’t automatically acquire parental responsibility for their step-child.  Although parental responsibility is not always needed, it is important families understand their legal rights when they don’t fall into the typical nuclear family category.

Why choose Clifford Johnston?

Here at Clifford Johnston, our experienced team aims to assist with all legal aspects and to advise you as a family when you are looking for some clarity with regard to your legal position as a step-family.

We understand that every family is different which is why we are always clear in our approach. We handle all our cases with empathy, and we will work closely with you to ensure you have the practical solutions needed.

Get in touch today - our highly professional team will work tirelessly on your behalf and offer genuine care while dealing with your case.

What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility relates to parents’ duties towards their child rather than the parent’s rights over their child. It includes the rights and obligations by law that parents have towards children. The basic level of parental responsibility is parents providing children with food, shelter, safety, and financial support. Other responsibilities are education, religion, discipline, medical treatment, the child’s name, and where the child resides.

Who has parental responsibility?

Mothers automatically have parental responsibility. A biological  father has parental responsibility if he was married to the child’s mother at the time of the birth or married her after, if he is named on the child’s birth certificate (registered after 01/12/2003) or he has a Parental Responsibility Agreement or Court Order allowing him parental responsibility.

Married or civil partners in same-sex relationships both have parental responsibility. More than two adults can have parental responsibility and step-parents can be given parental responsibility in appropriate cases. It is however important for step-parents to remember that where, despite their separation, the biological parents are still maintaining mutually supportive and functioning arrangements for the care of their children, there will usually be no need to seek formal parental responsibility.

Can I obtain parental responsibility for my stepchildren?

Even when a step-parent marries a child’s biological parent, step-parents don’t automatically gain parental responsibility. Plenty of families are happy to not change their legal status, but there are some decisions a step-parent may need to be part of where parental responsibility is required, for example, medical treatments or simply signing consent forms for school. This may occur where lines of communication with a natural parent are difficult and it isn’t always possible to consult with them over certain issues. Previously, step-parents were only granted parental responsibility if they legally adopted the child but now there are alternative options.

Parental responsibility agreement

This option is the simplest to gain parental responsibility for a step-child. There are two conditions you must meet.

Firstly, you have to be married to the biological parent with whom the child lives. Secondly, to get the agreement, you must gain consent from all who hold parental responsibility. If everyone agrees this process is straightforward and there is no requirement to make an application to the court. However, the agreement must be signed by all parties at the court before it is registered. The agreement remains in place until the child turns 16.

When the child’s other parent is not in agreement then a step-parent will be required to apply to the court for parental responsibility and ultimately it will be the court’s decision based on the child’s best interests. The court will be reluctant to grant a step- parent an order if the non-resident parent is able to and willing to meet their parental responsibilities in an adequate way.

Child arrangement order

A Child Arrangement Order is commonly used when a separating or divorcing couple can’t agree where their child should live. If a step-parent is named in the order as someone the child lives with then as a step-parent you will be granted parental responsibility for as long as the order is in place. If you become your stepchild’s legal guardian, then you will automatically gain parental responsibility.

What happens following the death of a parent?

When a biological parent passes away, step-parents are likely to have questions about where their step-child will live. Even if the child has been living with you the level of contact is dependent on the ability of the child’s surviving biological parent to look after the child as well as your legal status as a step-parent. It is not uncommon for disagreements to arise and we are here to help during this difficult time to provide advice on any concerns you have with regards to your step-children.

Adopting a step-child

While getting parental responsibility is a simpler way of formalizing the relationship between step-parent and child, some families decide to make things official with adoption. When applying for the adoption of a step-child the court will consider what is best for the child. Adoption is not always the best method for some families as it can end the legal status with the other biological parent. A court is unlikely to grant an adoption order unless there are very compelling reasons to do so.

Applying for an adoption order

For over 21s who have lived with their partner and child for at least 6 months, you can apply for an Adoption Order. This process can be long as the local authority and the court need to be in an agreement that the decision is best for the child.

The first step is to inform the local authority of your intentions to adopt your partner’s child so a social worker can be appointed to assess your suitability. You will be able to apply for an Adoption Order after a minimum of three months from notifying the local authority but no longer than two years. A sequence of hearings will be held to establish the suitability of the adoption. If the non-resident biological parent objects to an adoption order being made, the court will very carefully have to consider whether their objection is reasonable and whether, despite the objection, it would be better for the child to be adopted. This is a serious step, as the child’s relationship with their natural parent is likely to be brought to a  complete end. The child’s birth certificate will be replaced by an adoption certificate.

It is important to carefully consider if adoption is the right thing for your family. Our family solicitors will provide you with the best legal advice regarding your circumstance.

Where to make an adoption application and who should you let know?

You have to inform the Local Authority children’s department of your intention to adopt a minimum of three months before issuing an application. They will assign a social worker to do a thorough check for the court, information will be obtained regarding the child, the child’s family situation, and about you and your partner, which means the social worker will need to meet with you and the child.

An adoption application is made to the Family Proceedings Court, the County Court, or the High Court. A non-refundable fee applies when you make an application to the court even if the court doesn’t make an adoption order or if you decide not to go ahead.

What does the court do?

The court decides what is best for the child. It is the court’s responsibility to see if the biological parents agree to the adoption. If both have Parental Responsibility for the child the court has to assign an officer from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to interview and observe any formal written consent. The officer’s job is to represent the child and ensure the court is informed of the child’s wishes and those of all relatives before making the order. When a parent doesn’t have Parental Responsibility, the court doesn’t need their consent before agreeing to an adoption order. However, if the parent is close with their child, the court will want to know their views, in addition to the child.

Will the other parent be informed?

Yes, the court will acknowledge the child’s connection to the other parent, even if contact is non-existent. The court considers the child’s entire family connections, including the relationship the child has with their grandparents and other relevant people before making an adoption order, not only their current family arrangement. This is a condition in Section 1, Adoption and Children Act 2002. It can be confusing when a child grows up to discover they don’t have any legal connection with one side of their biological family. A social worker and the CAFCASS officer will be in contact with the parent as well as you and the child and make suggestions in a written report to the court.

Effect of an adoption order

When a step-parent adopts a partner’s child it ends the legal relationship between a child and biological parent and any relatives on that side. Occasionally that means the child feels that they have to choose between different adults, they will also lose all maintenance and inheritance rights. The step-parent becomes the legal parent with parental responsibility for the child forever. The child’s surname may be changed although there are cases in which the court doesn’t think this is appropriate. Following adoption the child acquires rights to your estate along with any biological children, so for example, if you die without leaving a will, the adopted child has inheritance rights  equal to those of your biological children. In the event of you and your wife separating or divorcing you remain the child’s adoptive parent and parental responsibility continues.

Factors to consider

It is very important to carefully consider the potential consequences of seeking a parental responsibility order or adoption in respect of a step-child, as there are could be negative consequences which are unforeseen, even if your intentions are well motivated. If you are unsure, it is a good idea to take early legal advice, before doing anything which may cause upset to the people involved. We will be able to help you identify the benefits and the disadvantages of any course of action which you are contemplating and help you reach the right decision. Sometimes it may help if a solicitor makes an approach on your behalf to the non-resident parent to explore with them how they would feel about any particular steps being taken, if you feel anxious about doing this directly.

Contact our Family Law Solicitors today

We regularly help local stepfamilies with all matters relating to child custody and parental responsibility so for professional, confidential advice contact us today.

Our friendly team will deal with your enquiry sensitively and with understanding, so contact us today for helpful and supportive advice.

Our Child Law Solicitors are based at both of our offices and their vast experience makes them an integral part of our team of Family Solicitors in Stockport & in Manchester.

With offices in Stockport (Heaton Moor) & Manchester (Burnage), our expert family solicitors are easily accessible.  We represent clients not only locally and throughout Stockport, Cheshire, Lancashire & Manchester but also across the United Kingdom. You can count on us to help and guide you whatever your challenge or circumstance.

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