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What rights do step-parents have? Family Law

What rights do step-parents have?



It is estimated that one in three families in the UK are blended families, meaning that they have a combination of parents, step-parents and children from different relationships.

Step-parents often play an important role in a child’s life, but may be left wondering what their legal status is in relation to their step-children.


Step-parents and parental responsibility

No matter how much a step-parent contributes to a child’s life, rights and responsibilities for that child are not automatically granted by marrying the child’s biological parent. Instead, step-parents can acquire such rights by obtaining parental responsibility for their step-child.

A person who has parental responsibility has the right to be consulted with and make decisions about that child’s upbringing, which can include their education, religion, and medical treatment. Such decisions must be made jointly with anyone else who has parental responsibility for the child.


How can step-parents obtain parental responsibility?

Step-parents may feel it important to obtain parental responsibility for their step-children, particularly if the children are in their care for extended periods. There are a number of ways in which step-parents can gain parental responsibility:

  1. Parental Responsibility Agreement – It is possible to enter into a Parental Responsibility Agreement, which involves those who already have parental responsibility giving their consent to, and formally signing, an agreement confirming that the step-parent now also has parental responsibility. The step-parent must be married to the biological parent with whom the child lives and the agreement will need to be approved by the court.
  2. Parental Responsibility Order – If reaching an agreement by consent is not possible, step-parents can apply to the court for a Parental Responsibility Order. The court will decide whether to grant an order by considering the child’s best interests, taking into account factors such as their wishes and feelings, their physical, emotional and educational needs and the involvement that the step-parent has in the child’s life.
  3. Child Arrangements Order – A Child Arrangements Order is a court order which sets out with whom a child is to live, spend time with or otherwise have contact. A step-parent will gain parental responsibility if they are granted a Child Arrangements Order specifying that the child is to live with them.
  4. Adoption – Finally, parental responsibility is obtained if a step-parent formally adopts a child.

Once a step-parent acquires parental responsibility, they shall have the same responsibilities and duties as the child’s biological parents.


Step-parents and divorce

Where a step-parent separates from the child’s biological parent, they have no automatic right to spend time with the child unless a formal adoption has previously taken place. However, it is often in the interests of the child for their relationship to continue, particularly if they have been part of each other’s lives for some time. It is always hoped that this can be agreed between parents, through direct discussions.

Mediation is an alternative means of reaching an agreement. Mediation is a process that encourages parents to meet and have meaningful discussions with the assistance of a neutral third-party mediator. It is a voluntary process and therefore to be successful, it requires all parties to commit to the process.

If arrangements still cannot be agreed, step-parents can apply to the court for a Child Arrangements Order to spend time with their step-children. Step-parents may require permission from the court to make an application if they do not have parental responsibility for the child.


Financial responsibilities

In most circumstances, step-parents have no formal financial obligations in relation to step-children following a separation, as the Child Maintenance Service only has the jurisdiction to deal with child maintenance between biological parents. As this does not extend to step-parents, it is an issue that would need to be raised with the court instead.

The court can make orders for a step-parent to make financial provision for a child. In determining whether this would be appropriate, the court considers a range of factors, including the relationship between the step-parent and child and the child’s financial needs.


For confidential, trusted advice about arrangements for children, contact Jess Nicholson on, or visit



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