Parental Responsibility for Step-Children
In our modern society it is increasingly common for parents of children to divorce and remarry, creating a step-parent step-child relationship. Many step-parents take active roles in their step-children’s lives; however, marriage to a child’s biological parent does not confer any parental responsibility on a step-parent.
What is parental responsibility?
A person with ‘parental responsibility’ has the same rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority as a biological parent in respect of the child; this is governed by the Children Act 1989.
Decisions made about a child under this authority may include vaccinations, their religious education, or making decisions with their school, including the signing of consent forms.
A lack of parental responsibility does not prevent a person with care of a child acting reasonably in circumstances for the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare, such as a babysitter or step-parent taking a child to A&E in an emergency.
Who has parental responsibility?
The biological mother of a child will always have parental responsibility.
If the biological father is married to the mother at the time of birth, he will automatically have parental responsibility on the birth. If they are not married at the time of the birth, the father can acquire parental responsibility by: marrying the mother, being named on the birth certificate (on or after 01/12/2003; the father must be present at the registration), or he can acquire it by other means (similar to those for step-parents set out below).
Note that there are different rules for same sex parents which have not been discussed here.
Step-parents: acquiring parental responsibility.
Step-parents cannot automatically acquire parental responsibility by marrying the biological mother of the child. There are, however, a number of ways to obtain parental responsibility:
Parental Responsibility Agreement: Once married, or in a civil partnership with the child’s parent, a step-parent can acquire parental responsibility by entering into a Parental Responsibility Agreement with all persons who currently have parental responsibility for the child. This does include, for example, any ex-partner with parental responsibility; therefore if the child’s other parent does not consent to the Agreement, an application to Court would be required.
Parental Responsibility Order: On application, the Court can order that a person, such as step-parent, has parental responsibility. Any other person with parental responsibility over the child will be notified of the application and can oppose it, but it will be for the Court to decide whether granting parental responsibility is in the best interests of the child.
Note that a Court can order that a person’s parental responsibility be removed, however this is rare and only used in extreme circumstances.
Child Arrangements Order (CAO): If there is a CAO in place (setting out where the child lives or with whom they have contact), a step-parent will acquire parental responsibility under that Court order if they are named as a person that the child will live with.
If a step-parent is to spend time or have contact with the child under the order, but is not named as a person they are to live with, then the step-parent may be given parental responsibility, but this is at the discretion of the Court and not automatically acquired under the CAO.
A step-parent’s parental responsibility under a CAO will last as long as the CAO is in force (if the child is to live with the step-parent), or as long as they are named as having contact with the child in the CAO if parental responsibility has been granted.
Adoption: It may be possible to acquire parental responsibility through adoption; however, as this extinguishes the rights held by any other natural parents, it is only likely to be used by a step-parent in very limited circumstances.
Note that some of these methods for acquiring parental responsibility may be applicable for other persons connected to a child, such as guardians and grandparents.
Step-parent with parental responsibility: what does it mean now?
Parental responsibility diminishes as a child grows older, for example medical facilities may have discretion to not send any information to the parents of a 16 year old child who has sufficient understanding and intelligence to make decisions on the matter.
When the step-child reaches 18, any parental responsibility acquired under a Parental Responsibility Agreement will end automatically.
It is also possible for the Court to order the revocation of a step-parent’s parental responsibility if said responsibility was acquired under a Parental Responsibility Agreement or a Court order and such application was made by any other person with parental responsibility.
It is important to also note that parental responsibility provides an equal say in any matter, but it does not provide the right to any final say.
If you would like to discuss parental responsibility or require assistance in obtaining parental responsibility, speak to one of our family law experts today on 01484 519999. Our family team cover all of our offices in Leeds, Wakefield, Huddersfield, Halifax, Morley, Pudsey, Horbury, Bradford and Guiseley.
Posted by Casey Robinson, Trainee Solicitor Family Department, Chadwick Lawrence LLP.
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