An increasing area where I have received enquiries over the last 30 years, with a significant rise in the number of blended families are queries arising in regards to what rights, if any, a step-parent has with regards to children with whom they are living and indeed, subsequently what rights they have if any to maintain a relationship with children (not their biological own) following separation of that family.
Private family law – what rights do step-parents have for children?
As I have touched upon and tried to build within the previous articles within this series, the parents are those who hold parental responsibility for the children and have the rights, duties and responsibilities in regards to those children. In short, the answer if a query is raised what rights do step-parents have with regards to making decisions for children who are within their care, is none.
It is only those parents with parental responsibility (or in a court order) that are entitled to make those decisions and take actions in regards to their children.
This remains the same irrespective of the number of years that they live with that particular step-parent.
There are ways within which some degree of responsibility and decision-making process can be granted to the step-parent but specific actions need to be undertaken in this regard.
- After a period of three years of cohabitation a step-parent can make a court application for parental responsibility for a child (see subsequent article where this is dealt with in greater depth).
- The parent with primary care could make an application for a joint live with order for the child to live with both themselves and their partner, which if granted would bring with it parental responsibility to the step-parent (again, see subsequent article relating to court applications).
- Alternatively, the parent with care could devolve their parental responsibility to allow decisions to be undertaken by the step-parent (again please see subsequent article dealing specifically with parental responsibility for the ability and method of devolvement of said parental responsibility).
Without such direct action however, irrespective of the number of years a child lives with the step-parent, they do not automatically acquire any specific legal rights or duties in regards to that child.
Maintaining relationship following separation
Where a step-parent separates from a child’s natural parent, there is technically again no legal expectation that a child should then maintain a relationship with that step-parent.
This is the same situation as arises in the previous article relating to grandparents and wider family contact.
The step-parent may have a right to apply to the Court however for a Child Arrangements Order to maintain a relationship with that child, either by way of right because the child has lived with them for a period of three years or alternatively by way of a C2 application to seek the Court’s permission to pursue such an application.
The same principles will be applied to such an application as identified and set out in the previous article.
In determining whether to grant permission for the application to proceed or not, the Court will be taking into account a variety of issues (case specific) to determine whether there is merit in the application before deciding whether to grant permission or not. This will of course include the length of time that the child has been in the relationship with the step-parent, the nature of the relationship between the step-parent and the child, the views of the parents etc.
The other specific issue of course that needs to be taken into account when considering a step-parent application is whether the child is continuing to have a contact relationship with their other natural parent.
This can create some complexity in these orders as the Court will also have to balance the potential need for the child to maintain a relationship with a step-parent as well as their parents impact of the amount of time that that child would then be potentially transferring between varying homes.
This may mean that a step-parent will not receive the same levels of contact that might be expected in circumstances where two natural parents separate.
If you have asked any questions in relation to what rights any step-parents have and would now like more information on the different types of proceedings relating to children, please get in touch and we would be happy to assist you.
This article is part of a series on Private Family Law and Children Law proceedings. If you would like to learn more about the rules around parental responsibility, contact, holidays and arrangements for separated parents, please click here for the full series.
The next article in this series of private family law will address when can my child decide on contact?
If you would like to understand more about how lawyers know what advice to provide, and how courts make decisions, please get in touch and we’d be happy to assist you.