Step-parents often play a significant role in a child’s upbringing but can find themselves in a position of living with a child without having any legal rights or responsibilities for them. Being a step-parent does not automatically impose any legal rights or responsibilities. This can be challenging, for example, if there is a medical emergency and a step-parent is not able to consent to medical treatment for their step-child because they do not hold ‘Parental Responsibility’ for them.
Parental Responsibility is defined in the Children Act 1989 as being “all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property”. Step-parents do not automatically get Parental Responsibility for their step-children by marriage but they can only acquire it in one of the following ways: –
- By entering into a Parental Responsibility Agreement with every other person who has Parental Responsibility;
- By applying to the Court for a Parental Responsibility Order;
- Through the making of a Child Arrangements Order that the child lives with them, whether alone or jointly; or
- Through adoption.
By the same token, there are also no automatic obligations on step-parents to financially maintain their stepchildren and therefore, an application cannot be made to the Child Maintenance Service for child support. However, where a child is or has been treated as a child of the step-parent and their spouse, the Court can make financial orders against the step-parent in favour of the child. Factored into the Court’s consideration would be the liability of any other person to maintain the child financially.