Step-parents and their rights over step-children

If you and your partner have children from former relationships, you will have taken on day-to-day responsibility for them when their natural parents aren’t around, but where do you stand legally when it comes to what you can and can’t authorise for your step-children? What happens, for example, if a child becomes injured and need urgent medical treatment was in your care – and you can’t contact the natural parents?

The answer comes down to parental responsibility. This relates to the rights and duties a parent has in respect of their child – which includes

• making decisions about medical treatment for the child

• deciding here the child should live

• issues surrounding religious upbringing

• decisions on how the child should be educated

• under certain circumstances, give the child consent to marry if they’re under eighteen years of age

Who has Parental Responsibility automatically?

Parental responsibility is always given to the mother, but the law is different when it comes to unmarried fathers. If for example, the child’s birth wasn’t registered before November 30th 2003, an unmarried father doesn’t have parental responsibility, even if on the child’s birth certificate he is registered as the father. Conversely, if a child’s birth has been registered since November 30th 2003, and the biological father is named on that certificate, then, that father automatically has parental responsibility – regardless of whether he is married to the mother or not.

How a Step-parent Can Gain Parental Responsibility

Having a residence order made by the court in your favour in respect of a child, or by legally adopting them, gives you parental responsibility [although, in the case of a residence order, that parental responsibility is limited to however long the residence order lasts].

However, since 5 December 2005, step-parents have been able to obtain parental responsibility either through a Court Order or by entering into a formal parental responsibility agreement – such an agreement needs to be signed by all of those with existing parental responsibility – usually the child’s biological parents or individuals who have acquired Parental Responsibility since the child’s birth.

Once the step-parent has gained parental responsibility they will then be entitled to duties and responsibilities that any natural or by what parent would.