With an increasing number of couples in the UK divorcing and entering into new relationships, it is inevitable that the children of these parties are also carried into these relationships. As a new partner of someone already with children, you may wonder what rights you have regarding those children. Contact is especially important. The ability to regularly maintain a relationship can be essential for both you and the child. This article will provide you with some answers and explain the necessary steps to get contact.
The traditional definition is a man or woman who is married to someone’s mother or father but who is not their parent. In a modern context, it can also include partners, girlfriends, boyfriends, same sex couples and other similar relationships.
New partners are often a source of contention between parents – especially when it comes to children. As a step-parent you may want to be able to make some choices regarding your step-child/children and want to ensure you have regular contact with them. A natural parent automatically has the right to do these things through having ‘Parental Rights and Responsibilities’ (PRRS). Having PRRs means that in law you have the responsibility to care for your child’s health, development and welfare, provide them with direction and guidance, and if they don’t live with you, to maintain a relationship and contact with them. These responsibilities have corresponding rights.
Mothers get PRRs automatically. A father’s position is different. Broadly speaking, a father obtains PRRs if married to the mother, if he registers the birth (i.e. is on the birth certificate), or if an agreement is made between the natural mother and father that the father should have PRRs. Unfortunately, step-parents have no PRRs over step-children, whether they are married to the child’s natural parent or not.
Because there is no single accepted role a step-parent should play in their step-child’s life, there may be confusion when trying to make your own informal arrangements. This means the only concrete way of having an unwavering influence in the child’s life is to go to court.
The most common way for those without automatic PRRs to get them, and in particular to get contact with them, is by obtaining a court order. For contact with your step-child, this takes the form of a ‘Contact Order’.
As mentioned above, both natural parents generally already have PRRs and therefore the right to contact. But don’t worry, more than two can have the right and responsibility to contact. This is often a way for grandparents and even older siblings to get involved in a child’s life too!
In making its decision, the court will look to a variety of factors. The main consideration is the best interests of the child. This depends on the relationship you already have with your step-child, where your step-child currently lives, whether both natural parents still have an influence on their upbringing, and so on. It is important to remember that if your application is unsuccessful, it will never be out of malice or because you are ‘only’ a step-parent. It will be because the judge is putting your step-child and their wellbeing first.
Applying for a will get you some legal influence in your step-child’s life, but it won’t make you a parent. Adoption is a process which creates a new relationship of parent and child. It is permanent and means all of the PRRs relating to the child are vested in the adopter.
To adopt a step-child, you must be married to, in a civil partnership with, or living in ‘an enduring family relationship’ with the child’s mum or dad. The other natural parent will have to consent to the adoption if they currently have PRRs, but no consent is needed if the other natural parent has passed away, cannot be located, is mentally incapable, or is unable to satisfactorily discharge their PRRs. Once they have consented, there is a relatively lengthy process involving various home visits by social workers, reports, and a hearing. If after this process there is no opposition, and the court is happy that the adoption is in the child’s best interests currently and throughout their life, an order will be made.
In the majority of cases though, it is not often that a natural parent will give their consent to the adoption. This would mean that they cease to be a parent, lose all PRRs relating to the child, and their ties with them would be severed. This does not happen if the step-parent simply seeks contact. For this reason, a Contact Order is the best route to take.
StepFamily Scotland attempted to introduce an alternative route for step-parents. They suggested that an agreement should be available to step-parents who had lived with the family for over two years, but this was never brought into force.
The frustration you may feel by not being able to have a full legal influence in your step-child’s life is understandable. However, this is the best overall option. Anyone other than the natural parents of the child must seek a Contact Order. This even includes the child’s grandparents. If an alternative route allowed for step-parents, it would become difficult to justify other relatives having to go to court. More importantly, the current system ensures that the child is always at the centre of every decision. After all, the child is the one who will be affected the most. Placing too much emphasis on the relationship between adults would take away focus from the child’s welfare.
A Contact Order will allow you guaranteed regular contact with your step-child and will be easily obtained if it is the best option for the child. Don’t forget, however, that if all adults (the step-parent and both natural parents) are in agreement about how often a step-parent is to see the child, or where any boundaries relating to the child lie, then there is no need to go to court at all.
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