Can I get parental responsibility as a step-father?

05 March 2020

You can get Parental Responsibility as a step-parent in a number of ways including legal adoption, a Parental Responsibility Agreement and a Court Order. This information applies in England and Wales.

What is parental responsibility?

Parental Responsibility covers all of the duties and obligations you have towards a child as their parent.

For example, as a parent you have a duty to provide your child with food, shelter, safety and financial maintenance. But Parental Responsibility goes further than this, also covering education, religion, discipline, medical treatment, the name by which the child is known and even where the child should live.

The Children Act 1989 sets out a legal definition of Parental Responsibility.

Who has parental responsibility?

A mother automatically has Parental Responsibility. A biological father will have Parental Responsibility if he meets any of the following criteria:

  • He was married to the child’s mother at the time of the birth or married her subsequently, or
  • He is named on the child’s birth certificate (if registered after 1/12/2003), or
  • He has the benefit of a Parental Responsibility Agreement or Court Order granting him Parental Responsibility.

Same-sex partners who were civil partners at the time of the birth will both have Parental Responsibility.

A child’s Legal Guardian will have Parental Responsibility if he/she was appointed in the Will of a parent with Parental Responsibility, and that parent is deceased.

In certain circumstances, Parental Responsibility may be shared between a parent and a Local Authority (usually when the child has been the subject of Care Proceedings).

Parental responsibility for step-parents

While many step-parents will naturally develop a deep bond with their step-child and play a significant role in their upbringing, they will not automatically have parental responsibility for them. This means that legally they have no say in day-to-day decisions and may not even have authority to sign consent forms for school.

Whether the other (non-resident) biological parent plays an ongoing active role in the child's life or not, step-parents can feel side-lined or that their relationship with the child is unacknowledged. This can also be an issue for the child if the step-parent is a significant parental figure in their life.

Step-parents cannot acquire Parental Responsibility for a child simply by marrying the child's biological parent.

Currently a step-parent living in England or Wales can acquire Parental Responsibility for a child under the following circumstances:

  • When the Court makes a Child Arrangements Order that the child lives with the step-parent either on their own or with another person (these types of ‘step-parent’ Orders are uncommon)
  • When the step-parent adopts a child which puts him/her in the same position as a birth parent
  • Through the signing of a Parental Responsibility Agreement to which all the other people with Parental Responsibility consent (see below for more information)
  • When the Court has made a Parental Responsibility Order following an application by the step-parent. On acquiring Parental Responsibility, a step-parent has the same duties and responsibilities as a biological parent.

Same sex partners in a registered civil partnership or marriage can also acquire Parental Responsibility by agreement or a Court Order.

How to get a parental responsibility agreement as a step-parent

There are two criteria to obtaining Parental Responsibility by agreement. Firstly, you must be married to the biological parent with whom the child lives.

Secondly you must have the signed consent of every other person with Parental Responsibility for the child. This means that if the other parent of the child is living and has Parental Responsibility, he/she must agree to you acquiring Parental Responsibility and must co-operate in the agreement being approved by the Court.

A number of supporting documents will need to be provided:

  • Your marriage certificate showing you are married to the child's parent
  • The child's full birth certificate (to be provided by the parent)
  • Where there is another parent with Parental Responsibility, proof of their Parental Responsibility must be provided
  • All parties to the agreement must provide photographic evidence of identity, such as a passport or driving licence.

What if the other parent won’t agree?

It can be a contentious issue when other people are involved in the upbringing of your children. For some, the idea of sharing Parental Responsibility with a former spouse's new spouse may not sit comfortably. A non-resident parent could view this as an attempt to marginalise them in their own child's life.

If the other parent doesn't consent but you and your spouse believe that it's in the child's best interests for you to have Parental Responsibility, you can apply for a Court Order giving you Parental Responsibility.

What does a step-parent parental responsibility agreement do?

What a step-parent Parental Responsibility Agreement does is give you the same legal rights and obligations in relation to raising the child as the biological parent or parents.

Here’s what a step-parent Parental Responsibility Agreement doesn’t do:

  • It doesn’t remove Parental Responsibility from the non-resident biological parent
  • It doesn’t give you a greater say than the non-resident parent in the child’s upbringing (but it does give you an equal say)
  • It doesn’t make you liable to pay maintenance for the child
  • If you separate from the child’s parent or move out, it doesn’t give you an automatic right to see the child.

What a step-parent Parental Responsibility Agreement does do is give you the same legal rights and obligations in relation to raising the child as the biological parent or parents.

What if I change my mind?

Once you have Parental Responsibility, whether by agreement or Court Order, it can only end in the following ways:

  • If you or any other person with Parental Responsibility obtains a Court Order
  • If the child (with the permission of the Court) applies for an Order
  • When the child reaches 18 years of age.

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