Info & Advice

The legal responsibilities of a cohabiting partner or unmarried ‘step-parent’

Request a Free Consultation with a Solicitor

Blended families are a common feature of modern life, and because of this, someone other than a biological parent often becomes responsible for the upbringing of a child alongside its natural parents. But does this involvement confer legal rights on a ‘step-parent’ not married to the child’s biological parent? Read on to find out.

Who has parental responsibility for a child?

In short, an unmarried or cohabiting ‘step-parent’ without formal parental responsibility, has no authority over a child, despite caring for them, or being responsible for their upbringing, over many years.

Only the child’s biological mother will automatically acquire parental responsibility. A biological father will only obtain it if they were married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth, were unmarried but named on the child’s birth certificate, have been awarded parental responsibility through a parental responsibility agreement or via a court order.

Second female parents who were married to or in a civil partnership with the child’s biological mother at the time of conception will also have PR. However, if the child was conceived as a result of sexual intercourse or the wife/civil partner did not consent to the conception, then parental responsibility will not be acquired. Although in practice, this would be extremely difficult to police.

Despite stepfamilies being extremely common, married step-parents do not have any legal rights over a child and therefore do not hold parental responsibility. To become a step-parent legally (but one without rights or PR), an individual must marry one of the child’s biological parents. Simply living together with your partner does not mean you become a step-parent, even though you might be carrying out the step-parent role and be responsible, at least in part, for the child’s upbringing.

What decisions can be made by those with parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility includes making decisions on matters, such as:

  • The day-to-day care and wellbeing of the child
  • Choosing, registering, and changing the child’s name
  • Deciding about the child’s education, such as which school they should attend
  • Making decisions about the child’s religion
  • Ensuring that the child is fed and clothed
  • Decisions regarding the child’s health, such as which GP they should attend, appointments, medical procedures, and accessing a child’s medical records
  • Deciding where the child should live
  • Appointing a child’s guardian in the event of the death of a parent
  • Consenting to taking the child abroad for holidays or extended stays overseas

The input of one parent with parental responsibility is equal to that of the other parent with PR, which under normal circumstances, lasts until the child turns 18 years of age.

How can an unmarried ‘step-parent’ acquire parental responsibility?

There are several ways to gain parental responsibility if you are not a married couple or biologically related to the child. These include:

  • Registering as the parents on the child’s birth certificate (this is only available to the child’s biological father)
  • Entering into a parental responsibility agreement (this requires the consent of all those who hold parental responsibility)
  • Applying to the court for a parental responsibility order providing the applicant has lived with the child for at least three years prior to making the application
  • Applying to the court for a child arrangements “live with” order (see below)
  • Adopting the child

The best way for you to obtain parental responsibility will differ depending on your circumstances. Speaking to a specialist lawyer at the outset can help make your options clearer.

Can I make an application for a child arrangements order without having parental responsibility?

There are circumstances when a ‘step-parent’ who does not have parental responsibility can make an application to the court for a child arrangements order without requiring permission from the court to do so. Anyone with whom the child has lived for a period of at least three years does not need permission from the court to make such an application. This period does not need to be continuous, but must not have begun over five years before, or ended more than three months before, the making of the application.

In cases where the ‘step-parent’ has not lived with the children for over three years, then they would first need to apply to the court for permission to make a child arrangements application. When deciding whether or not to grant permission, the court must look at:

  • The nature of the proposed application
  • The applicant’s connection with the child
  • Any risk there might be of the proposed application disrupting the child’s life to such an extent that they would be harmed by it

In shorter relationships, it may be more difficult to satisfy the court that an application is in the best interests of the child. However, in long term relationships where the ‘step-parent’ has been a significant part of the child’s life and played an important role in their upbringing, the court is more likely to give serious consideration to the application.

How many people can have parental responsibility?

Only two people can be legally classed as parents, but more than two people can have parental responsibility for a child. It merely requires the agreement of all those holding PR. Most times, decisions can be made by one parent. But where there is a major decision, all those with parental responsibility will need to agree. Conferring parental responsibility would probably fall into this category, with any disagreements requiring mediation or court involvement.

Even if an unmarried ‘step parent’ acquires parental responsibility, if the relationship breaks down, they will not be liable to pay child maintenance. This responsibility falls to the child’s biological parents. Although there are some circumstances where a Schedule 1 Children Act application may be made if the child concerned is a child of the family.

Can parental responsibility be delegated?

It is possible to delegate responsibility for child care to a partner, child minder, teacher, friend, or relative, but the person with parental responsibility remains liable and legally responsible for ensuring that proper arrangements are made for the child. Temporary carers will not have parental responsibility, but may do all that is reasonable in the circumstances for the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare.

Related Articles

Load More

Podcast: Listen Now