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What are your rights as a step-parent?

View profile for Giles Dobson
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If you are a recently divorced step-parent and are wondering what rights you have with regard to seeing your step-children, there are a number of things you need to know.

Here, we take a look at what happens after a divorce, what measures a step-parent can take in order to gain access to a step-child, and whether there are any financial obligations that need to be met.

A legal definition of ‘step-parent’

In order to work out what legal rights and responsibilities are shouldered by step-parents after a divorce, a working definition of what legally constitutes a step parent is needed. Step-parents are individuals who have married one of the biological parents of a child. Marriage is a legal requirement for step-parent status. Simply having lived with a biological parent for a substantial amount of time is not sufficient in itself. Though an individual may have assumed a traditional parental role for a child that is not biologically theirs, it is not until they marry that they become a step-parent.

Rights after the relationship ends

When a relationship ends, a step-parent may have questions over what their rights and responsibilities are to their step-children. What happens after a divorce can depend on whether the step-parent acquired parental responsibility for the child during the relationship. Parental responsibility is granted in one of three ways:

  • By agreement with all other individuals who already have parental   responsibility.
  • By adopting the child.
  • By going through the court and obtaining a court order.

Parental responsibility gives individuals the legal right to make decisions regarding a child’s welfare, including decisions relating to medical, accommodation, and educational factors.

If a step-parent divorces the child’s biological parent, they have no automatic legal right to see the child. The only exception to this rule is if they have officially adopted the child. Though having acquired parental responsibility while in a relationship with the biological parent will not change this, it may have a positive impact on proceedings if you decide to seek a court order that allows you to see the child.

Mediation

Before it goes to court, subject to certain limited exceptions the biological parent and the step-parent are required to go through a mediation process, in an attempt to resolve the issue through constructive discussion. If an agreement is still not reached, the step-parent can seek the intervention of the court.

Child Arrangements Order

For step-parents hoping to continue their relationship with their step-child, the most useful legal tool is a Child Arrangements Order. These orders determine where the child lives and with whom they spend their time. A variety of factors come into play when step-parents apply for a Child Arrangements Order, and the court will take all relevant circumstances into account before making a decision.

Financial responsibilities

When it comes to a step-parent’s financial obligation to their step-child after a divorce, there are a few things to remember. First, the Child Maintenance Service cannot require a step-parent to pay maintenance for a step-child. However, if the step-child was raised as if it were part of a new family, consisting of the step-parent, biological parent, and any children, the court could determine that the step-parent needs to cover some costs as they are children of the family. In such a case the needs of the children are of prime importance and their housing and income needs are to be met first before any other consideration.

Conclusion

In most scenarios, a step-parent will not automatically be entitled to see their step-children if they divorce the biological parent. However, through face-to-face discussions, mediation, or a Child Arrangements Order, it is possible to gain contact with your step-child. Step-parents also need to be aware that they may have certain financial obligations to their step-children after a divorce, as determined by the court.

If you are in need of further information or advice on any of the issues raised, please call us on 01474 546013 or email our new enquires team enquires@martintolhurst.co.uk.

Contact our experts for further advice

Mary Shepherd, Nameeta Gujral, Ashley Le-Core

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