Modern families don’t come in one size and can embrace siblings, half-siblings, stepchildren and children who have grown up in the family without their parents marrying their new partners.
At AFG Law we understand that a lot of stepparents aren’t clear about their legal rights and responsibilities to their stepchildren and if an issue has arisen our specialist children solicitors can help.
We have put together information covering the main areas our family team are asked to advise upon by stepparents.
We have explained parental responsibility in our handy guide, but it is important to make it clear that a stepparent does not automatically gain any ‘rights’ for their stepchildren when they marry or enter a civil partnership with the children’s biological parent.
This means that a stepparent can’t make major decisions about a child’s education, health or religion but also that they can’t do more ‘day to day’ things like obtain information from a GP or sign to say the child can go on a school trip although a person who has a child in their care, but doesn’t legally have parental responsibility, may do what is reasonable to safeguard or promote the welfare of the child whilst the child is in their care.
However, it is possible for a stepparent to gain parental responsibility through either a parental responsibility agreement or parental responsibility order.
Parental responsibility agreement
Ordinarily only the mother and father will have parental responsibility for child but more than two people can have parental responsibility.
If you are a stepparent and want to obtain parental responsibility for a child, and both the mother and father agree, it is possible for you to enter into a parental responsibility agreement provided you are married or in a civil partnership with one of the parents.
Our solicitors can help you with the agreement and process, including making the initial approach to the other parent. Our family team includes solicitors who are members of Resolution and believe it is important to adopt a non-confrontational approach so you can be rest assured these issues will be handled sensitively with an understanding that you want to have a good co-parenting relationship in the future.
If a parental responsibility agreement is properly made only a court order, the child reaching the age of 18 or being adopted can bring it to an end
Parental responsibility orders
If it is not possible to reach an agreement with both of your stepchild’s parents about sharing parental responsibility for your stepchildren our solicitors can advise you on how to make an application to the Family Court for a parental responsibility order and can represent you during hearings.
The judge hearing your application will decide whether making an order for you to have parental responsibility is in your stepchild’s best interests and the welfare of your stepchild is the judge’s paramount consideration.
The judge will look at a number of different factors including; the level of commitment, the state of the current relationship with the child and the reason for making the application for a parental responsibility order.
Our children solicitors can help you apply for a parental responsibility order and advise on your prospects of success.
If the court makes a parental responsibility order only another court order, the child reaching the age of 18 or being adopted can bring it to an end.
Can I see my stepchild if my marriage breaks down? Child arrangement orders for stepparents
At AFG LAW our solicitors understand how difficult it is to deal with relationship breakdown, especially when it means suddenly not seeing children that have been a daily part of family life.
Most parents and stepparents manage to reach agreement on what is best for the children but sometimes, especially if a new relationship is involved, people can need help to resolve the arrangements for children.
A stepparent doesn’t automatically get to see their stepchildren if the marriage breaks down, we know this is a really difficult position to be in, especially, if you have a close bond and been a part of their lives for years.
Our children solicitors can help you to reach an agreement through negotiation or mediation or, if this is not possible, make an application to the Family Court for a child arrangements order.
The rules are more complicated for stepparents than for the child’s parents when it comes to making an application to court for a child arrangements order for a stepchild to live with or spend time with them.
If your stepchild has lived with you for a period of at least three years within the last five years, and this period did not come to an end more than three months prior to you making the application, you will not need permission of the court to make an application.
This is also the case if you are a party to a marriage or civil partnership (whether or not subsisting) in relation to whom the child is a ‘child of the family’; this is a complicated area and our children solicitors can provide you with tailored advice to your circumstances.
However, if this does not apply to you then, as a stepparent, you will first have to apply for leave to make an application for a child arrangements order. You may also hear the application referred to as applying for permission to make an application for a child arrangements order. We understand this is complicated and our solicitors can provide you with clear, legal advice to ensure you fully understand the process.
Applying for leave/permission is only the first stage and, if granted, allows you to make an application in the same way most applications are made. If a court is asked to decide an application for leave/permission to apply for a child arrangements order there are a number of different factors it has to consider including:
- the nature of the proposed application for the s8 order
- the applicant’s connection with the child
- any risk there might be of that proposed application disrupting the child’s life to such an extent that he would be harmed by it; and
- where the child is being looked after by a local authority-
- the authority’s plans for the child’s future
- the wishes and feelings of the child’s parents
If you are granted leave/permission by the Court you can make an application for a child arrangements order. We have more information on child arrangements order and what the court will look at when making an order but for clear legal advice, tailored to you and your family, contact our children law solicitors today.
If a stepparent adopts their stepchild it creates a lifelong legal connection effectively meaning the stepchild is treated as if he or she is the stepparents birth child; it confers parental responsibility and financial responsibility all the way from child maintenance to inheritance rights.
Stepparent adoption is not a common application for stepparents to make, certainly not where both of the stepchild’s birth parents are living. This is because whilst the adoption order will give the stepparent parental responsibility for the stepchild, along with your spouse or civil partner, it takes away parental responsibility from the child’s other biological parent.
This means that the child will lose the legal relationship not only with that parent but their wider family. Normally this is not a step that the other birth parent would agree to and something the court would approach very carefully.
Stepparent adoption can be a complicated process and one where having legal advice about different available options can help; our friendly, experienced solicitors can have a discussion with you to ensure you understand the steps involved as well as the alternative orders that might achieve your aims.
If you wish to adopt a stepchild you will need to inform your local authority at least 3 months before making the application to the family court as they require time to undertake the assessment. Your stepchild must also have lived with you and your spouse/civil partner for at least 6 months.
A social worker from the local authority will complete a report and speak to you and your partner, the other parent and the child where appropriate.
A court will only make an adoption order for a stepparent if the necessary consents are in place or it believes that it is in the child’s best interests and the child’s welfare is the court’s paramount consideration.
Stepparent Intervenors in care proceedings
Our children solicitors have experience of representing stepparents and unmarried partners involved in care proceedings where they have been asked to join the proceedings.
This is usually the case where, as the child lives in the same house as them, they have been identified as one of the people who were around the child when the alleged injuries or abuse occurred.
We have provided more information about intervening in care proceedings and non-accidental injuries but if you are a stepparent facing involvement in care proceedings speak to our care solicitors urgently.
Paying for stepchildren on divorce – child of the family
The Child Maintenance Service only deals with biological or adoptive parents, it cannot force stepparents to pay maintenance for their step-children. However, the Family Court system is different and, when considering the financial arrangements following the marriage breaking down, it does have the power to order a stepparent to provide financially for a stepchild in certain circumstances.
If the stepchild has been treated by the parent and stepparent as a child of their family this will be taken into account by the Court. When deciding what financial orders to make the first consideration of the court is given to the welfare of a minor of any ‘child of the family’ who has not reached the age of 18, adult children can be considered in some circumstances but don’t have the same priority as a child who is a minor.
Caselaw has given likely factors that will be used to determine whether a child is a ‘child of the family’ including who the child lives with, the time the child has spent with the stepparent, the financial assistance that has been provided during the marriage, whether they have taken important decisions for the child etc. This is a complicated area and our expert finance solicitors can provide you with advice and guidance on the next steps.
If you want advice about providing for a step-child in your will please contact our wills and probate team today on CTA. Stepchildren are not automatically entitled to inheritance so it is important they are included properly in a will.
If a stepchild was treated as a ‘child of the family’ during a marriage, or was financially dependent on a stepparent who has passed away it may be possible for them to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 if there is no provision for them in a will or they consider it inadequate.