Info & Advice

What happens when step parents divorce?

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Many step parents develop strong and lasting bonds with their step children, and are extremely concerned when the relationship with the biological parent breaks down. If you are a step parent who is in the process of separating or divorcing the biological parent of your step child, you may wonder if you have any rights and responsibilities towards them. Here, we look at what happens when step parents divorce.

What is a step parent?

In law, it is not sufficient to merely live (cohabit) with a biological parent even though the step parent may have assumed a traditional parental role over many years. Marriage or civil partnership is therefore required in order to acquire step parent status.

What are step parent rights when the relationship ends?

What is decided upon divorce largely depends on whether or not the step parent acquired parental responsibility for the children during the relationship. This can be granted to a step parent in one of three ways:

  • By agreement with all others holding parental responsibility.
  • By adopting the child.
  • By going through court and obtaining a court order.

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

If a step parent divorces a child’s biological parent, they have no automatic legal right to see the child. The only exception is if they have formally adopted the child. Having parental responsibility for a step child will not change this, but it is likely to have a positive impact on proceedings in a subsequent court application.

Unfortunately, there is no presumption of continued step parent involvement after divorcing the child’s biological parent. When a step parent divorces the biological parent, they do not have an automatic legal right to have contact with the child, unless they have officially adopted them. As a step parent, you can often feel as though a child is biologically yours, but it is important to remember that in the eyes of the law, this is not the case. Establishing your legal rights early in your marriage can make your future relationship with the child, the authorities, and the other parent much easier, both during the married and at the end of it.

What difference does adoption make to step parent rights after divorce?

When someone adopts a child, they become the child’s legal parent in the same way as a biological parent. This includes step parent adoption. It puts the child/parent legal relationship on the same footing and elevates the step parent to that of an adopted parent with all the rights and responsibilities that involves, including parental responsibility.

In order to be eligible to adopt your step child, they must have been living with you and their biological parent for at least six months. If any adoption order is granted, then you will acquire parental responsibility. The adoption order, will, however, remove parental responsibility from anyone else who has it including the other parent. It will also cause all other orders in relation to the child and their birth parent, such as a child arrangements order setting out when the parent may see the child, to be cancelled.

Do step parents have financial responsibilities after divorce?

The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) has no power to compel a step parent to pay maintenance for a step child. However, if the step child was brought up as part of a new family consisting of the biological parent, step parent and any children, the court may decide that the step parent must contribute financially. Here, the step parent may be required to make monthly maintenance payments, provide the biological parent, and step child with somewhere to live, and perhaps cover certain living costs.

If the step parent adopted the child, they will be financially responsible to pay maintenance for that child as they would be if the child had been biologically related to them.

What options are available to a step parent for obtaining contact with a step child following divorce?

Before any family court proceedings commence, the parties involved are required to attend a MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting). The aim of this initial meeting is to attempt to resolve the issues via constructive discussions with the assistance of an independent mediator. If mediation proves unsuccessful, or is not appropriate, the step parent can proceed with their court application.

A step parent wishing to maintain contact with their step child should make an application for a Child Arrangements Order. This determines where a child lives, with whom, and when they spend time with the non-resident parent. Many factors are considered when a step parent applies for such an order, including the factors in the welfare checklist as contained in S1 of the Children Act 1989. The court will also place paramount importance on the best interests of the child.

What happens if the child’s parent dies?

Parental responsibility will remain with those individuals who survive and had previously acquired it prior to the biological parent’s death. If you are a step parent with parental responsibility, this will continue. However, you may share this with the child’s living biological parent or anyone else who has it.

If you are caring for the child at the time of the biological parent’s death, then if there is no dispute, you may be able to continue caring for them. If there is a dispute with the other biological parent or someone else with parental responsibility, then ultimately, the court will need to decide the matter.

Your spouse or ex-spouse may appoint you in their will as the testamentary guardian of the child in the event of their death. This indicates who they would want the child to be cared by after they die. In England and Wales, this does not automatically confer parental responsibility onto a step parent (or anyone else named as testamentary guardian) if there is another surviving parent; this is because the surviving parent still retains equal rights.

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