What is parental responsibility? Who has it? Who can acquire it?

In my last previous article on this subject I looked at the role of step-parents and, more importantly, their legal status. To recap, a step-parent doesn’t typically have any ‘custody’ rights to stepchildren and therefore their powers are limited in respect of their step children. I gave the following example of where the legal status of a step parent could be an issue…

You have recently married your spouse who has two children, Lily and Harry. Your spouse is at brownie camp with Lily for a few days leaving you to care for Harry at home. Harry is out playing football with his mates at the park. You get a visit from a police officer who tells you that Harry has been in a fight and has harmed another boy. He is also injured and has been taken to hospital in an ambulance. He needs an operation on his broken jaw and the police also want to question him further about his behaviour. You cannot get hold of Harry’s mother or his biological father. What do you do and more importantly what are you allowed to do? The answer lies in whether you have ‘Parental Responsibility’ or not.

In short, you cannot give consent for any medical treatment to be carried out on Harry, nor can you accompany him whilst being questioned by the police. This can only come from someone who has parental responsibility.

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What is Parental Responsibility?

Parental responsibility is defined as ‘all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which, by law, a parent of a child has in relation to the child and their

Who has Parental Responsibility?

The child’s birth mother will automatically have parental responsibility. The child’s father will automatically have parental responsibility if he is married to the child’s mother or if the child was born after 1 December 2003 and he is named on the child’s birth certificate. As a step-parent no matter how involved you are in the lives of your partner’s children, or how much you contribute to their upbringing – financially or otherwise – you will not automatically gain parental responsibility. Remember, an unmarried partner is not legally a step-parent.

Can a step-parent acquire Parental Responsibility?

A step-parent can only acquire parental responsibility for a child in very specific circumstances including:

  • When the court makes a Child Arrangements Order that the child lives with the step-parent either on their own or with another person. However these types of ‘step parent’ orders are uncommon.
  • When the step-parent adopts a child which puts him/her in the same position as a birth parent.
  • Through the signing of a Parental Responsibility Agreement to which all other people with Parental Responsibility consent. This is a formal document which needs to be signed by all the parties and then registered at court.
  • When the court has made a Parental Responsibility Order following an application by the step-parent. On acquiring parental responsibility, a step-parent has the same duties and responsibilities as a natural parent.

I am always surprised at just how little Parental Responsibility Agreements are used and can only assume that step-parents are not aware of them and just how important they
may be. Further information can be found on the Resolution website: http://www.resolution.org.uk/childrenandlaw/

If you would like more information on this subject download our free factsheet on parental responsibility. 

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38 responses to “Step-parents and Parental Responsibility

  1. The mother of my little boy has gone to a solicitor to apply for a parental responsibility order to give her husband parental responsibility alongside both of us. Will this effect my rights? will it go against me if I have to go to court to see my son (its looking its going that way) and is she able to move abroad without my consent? I am wanting to cover my back before I sign it as normally she has an ulterior motive.

    1. Whether parental responsibility should be granted to your son’s mother’s husband depends on whether it is in your son’s best interests. The following also should be considered: the level of commitment and attachment between him and your son and reasons as to why he wants parental responsibility. Whoever holds parental responsibility for a child has a say and needs to be consulted in any major decisions relating to the child’s upbringing. If you have parental responsibility for your son, your son’s mother would need your consent or the permission from the court to move him abroad. If you have concerns about your son’s mother’s new husband sharing parental responsibility for your son or concerns about your son being removed from the country without your consent you should seek independent legal advice. You can find a local lawyer to help on the Resolution website.

    1. Dear Sam, thank you for your queries. To clarify you cannot be a step parent unless you are married or in a civil partnership to one of the child’s biological parents. Unless you are married or in a civil partnership with one of the parents, unfortunately your ability to obtain PR is extremely limited. I hope this assists.

  2. Me and my husband want him to have pr of my eldest son, his step son. My son’s dad doesn’t think our reason is good enough.
    I work full time and am studying also, with two kids, eldest is disabled, high funtctioning autism and spd. He attends lots of appiontments; salt, play therepy, ot, and a child phycologist as well as having counselling at the moment due to bullying (which husband paid for as o can’t afford it alone). I can always get these appiontmemts out of work or on lunch hours, due to working 9-4, doing assignments and attending class 6pm-9pm once a week, I do school run to two different schools. As husband is self employed he takes the time to take him. His dad although not working won’t as i won’t give him petrol money to do so.
    Most of the professionals are ok, but there are two that refuse to discuss anything regarding my son’s care with his step dad. Who is very involved, we’ve lived together for 5 years, married 2. He does my son’s sensory excersizes with him, he does homework when Im at classes, he attend a parents evenings and plays and sports days. They spend time alone doing “lad stuff” and he involved him on his work letting him help with woodwork so he felt more grown up, he taught him how to ride a bike, he takes him to martial arts classes, he picks him up from school if he’s off work, he reads to him and just does all the parenting stuff, yet has zero rights or say when it comes to his medical issues. They get on great.
    I can’t help feel my ex is being difficult. What other reasons do we need!?!
    Would a judge agree if this does end up in court? Which o feel it’s going to do.

    1. Thank you for your comment. For your information, when considering whether to make a Parental Responsibility order in favour of a step-parent the Family Court will consider:

      a. Your son’s welfare as its paramount consideration.
      b. The “no order” principle (the court must be satisfied that making the order would be better for your son than making no order at all).

      I may also consider the welfare checklist.

      I would suggest that before issuing any application you may want to consider obtaining some advice from a Resolution family law solicitor. They will be able to explore your circumstances in more detail with you. You may also wish to consider whether there are any alternative solutions which would avoid the need for court proceedings e.g. would your son’s father be willing to provide his written consent to the medical professionals discussing your son’s treatment with your husband whilst not providing PR? Alternatively, would the medical professionals be able to provide you with a written report on your son’s treatment and discuss this with you be phone if needed? I hope this helps.

  3. My husband and I are going to court for a child arrangement order of his 2 children. They currently live with us, and, due to circumstances CAFCASS has said that they, and social services, will be agreeing to the child arrangement order in our favour. If we get the order, do I, as the step-parent, get PR automatically it would I need to apply for PR still? Thanks in advance.

    1. Dear Claire, thank you for your comment. Provided you and your husband are both named as ‘Applicants’ in the proceedings and the Order is that the children live with both of you, you will assume PR automatically.

  4. My partner and I aren’t married and don’t intend to be for a few years yet. I have a daughter who’s father died a few years ago. I am in the process of considering my will, as my daughter has a trust of which I am the trustee. Due to these circumstances, could my partner gain PR for my daughter before we marry? I’m very concerned that should I die before this, there could be a very complicated and distressing custody issue for my daughter arise and I’d really like to put something in place to ensure that this happens if anything should happen to me in this time. Many thanks.

    1. Dear Jane, Thank you for your comment. At present in order to acquire PR for a child as a step-parent, you must be married to or in a civil partnership with the child’s parent. If and when you do marry the process is straight forward as you could enter into a step-parent parental responsibility agreement. If you are seriously considering marriage in the near future then you and your partner may want to bring your plans forward in order to enter into an agreement now. When you make your Will you should appoint a Guardian for your daughter. Whilst this is not conclusive, it would help your partner to prove your wishes should a dispute arise in the future.

  5. Can my son’s step dad take him abroad without my permission? His mother won t be traveling but she consents to them both going. Do I have a leg to stand on or am I fighting a losing battle

    1. Dear Jon, thank you for your query. Your son’s stepfather would need the permission of each person with Parental Responsibility before he can take your son out of the country for a holiday. You may find this blog helpful, as well as this factsheet . If we can assist any further please get in touch.

  6. i have just got a step parent parental responsibility order for my wifes son but before we got this my wifes mum managed to get a child arragement order for my wifes son would this parental responsibilty order change or void the child arrangment order?

    1. Dear Nathan, thank you for your comment. We cannot comment on individual cases in this forum I’m afraid. It will depend on the terms of each of the orders that have been made. You should seek advice from a specialist family lawyer who is a member of Resolution.

  7. Hello,

    My husband to be in 3 months would like to adopt my son. He has been in his life since he was 1 (he is now 7), he’s brought him up & weve recently had a son.
    My eldests sons biological father doesn’t see him. I have a restraining order against him 6 years ago due to common assault. Since the day of assault he’s not tried to see my eldest son, I gave up on CSA as he never paid.
    My son now wants to change his name to be the same once we are married. What are the chances of this along with my partner gaining PR and eventually adoption?

    1. Thanks for your comment Catherine. In order to change your child’s name or for your partner to obtain PR you would need to enter into an agreement with your son’s father or make an application to court. The success of any such application would depend on the particular circumstances of the case, so it is not possible for me to comment on your chance of success here. You also mention step-parent adoption, which is relatively unusual and must be given a great deal of thought. It would end the legal relationship between your child and his paternal family and this can have implications on his sense of identity as he grows up. If you and your partner did decide to apply for step-parent adoption you would undergo a detailed assessment by the local authority and as part of this your son’s connection with his father and paternal family, now and in the future, would need to be considered. If your application was successful and an adoption order was made, your child’s birth certificate would be replaced by an adoption certificate. This is a complex area of law and I strongly encourage to seek advice from a specialist family lawyer. If I can assist please do contact me.

  8. My son’s biological father has had no contact with him since he was 6 months old,( he will be 12 next month), I have recently changed his surname through deed poll and would like my husband (we have been married for nearly 9 years) to have full parental responsibility. If we applied for parental responsibility would it be granted? We do not know the whereabouts of his biological father and my son requested my husbands surname when we changed his surname. I am not really sure where to go from here, any advice would be welcome, Thanks Alex

    1. The answer to your question is dependent on whether the biological father has parental responsibility for your son, you can find out more information about parental responsibility from our factsheet. To change the name of your son consent from everyone with parental responsibility is needed, or an order from the court. Your husband can be granted parental responsibility by agreement with the consent of everyone with parental responsibility. If consent is not provided and an application to court is made whether the application would be successful will depend on whether it’s in your son’s best interests, the level of commitment of your husband, the degree of attachment between you son and your husband and the reason/motivation for your husband wanting parental responsibility. You should take legal advice based on your specific circumstances, you can contact us and arrange an initial consultation or if we are not local to you and you want a local lawyer you can find one online.

  9. Good morning
    Please can you explain how we go about getting parental responsibility (we are aunt and uncle) if Dad has died, mum is abroad and cannot be located and wont make contact? Do we just apply for a Child Arrangements Order or do we have to try and trace Mum
    thank you

    1. Thank you for your comment. There are a number options available to you if you are caring for your brother’s child including a child arrangements order, special guardianship order or adoption. I strongly recommend that you take advice from a specialist family solicitor in order to establish which is the best option for your family. Whatever option you choose, you will be expected to do your best to trace mum as she has parental responsibility and a right to have a say in relation to her child’s future. If she genuinely cannot not be found, then the court can proceed without her input in the proceedings.

  10. My husband and and I are concerned over what parental responsibility I have for my 9 year old step daughter. I have been in her life since she was 5 and have taken on the role more in line with mum that step mum for the last couple of years as her own mum had a breakdown/alcohol dependency and unfortunately more recently has died. Do we need to do anything here? Thanks.

    1. Dear Laura, thank you for your query. As you will have read step parents do not gain automatic parental responsibility. That is still the case in the unfortunate event of a birth parent dying. You can acquire parental responsibility through the signing of a Parental Responsibility Agreement to which all other people with Parental Responsibility consent. In your case I would assume that your husband is now the only person who has PR. The PR Agreement is a formal document which needs to be signed by all the parties and then registered at court.

  11. My ex husband is from Philippines and we have a beautiful daughter. Annuled marriage since 2010. He never get involved with my daughter’s up bringing since then. I get married again and settled now( applying citizenship) here in the uk. 1) Is the parental responsibility agreement Possible for My husband as a step parent. 2) is it possible to do it even with out the sign or consent of my daughters father as we didn’t know his where about? 3) how long will it takes for the agreement to be registered?

    1. In order to enter into a step parental responsibility agreement there needs to be consent from everyone who has parental responsibility. It sounds as though the father of your daughter has parental responsibility, if you were married to each other. If his consent is not forthcoming then your current husband can apply to court for a parental responsibility order. You and your current husband should each seek legal advice before an application is made to ensure it is the right option and so you are both clear of the process. You can contact Family Law Partners to arrange an initial consultation in Sussex or Hampshire or search online to find a lawyer local to you on the Resolution website.

  12. My stepdaughter has said she wants me to adopt her and she wants to live with me and her dad. She also told her child services case worker this (who is working with mam and her) but mam is having none of it.
    My husband is reluctant to go to court for custody as we have done this twice and not been successful. He also believes I should adopt her but I know her mother will never agree to this so I was considering Step Parent Responsibility Orders.
    Will they take my stepdaughters wishes into account (she is 10)? And how common is it that this is awarded?

    1. There is no such thing in law as a Step Parent Responsibility Order, perhaps you mean a Parental Responsibility Order? I think that first of all it’s important for you to be clear about what you want to achieve out of having Parental Responsibility for your step daughter. Having Parental Responsibility for her would not limit or extinguish her mother’s Parental Responsibility for her. It would effectively mean that you and her parents would exercise Parental Responsibility for her jointly. In practice it would mean that you would have an equal say in certain important decision regarding her upbringing. It would not include day to day decision which should be taken by the parent with day to day care without interference from the other parent. It would also place an obligation on you to provide for your step daughter e.g. with food, shelter and safety. You may wish to consider attending mediation. I suggest that you contact a Resolution lawyer who can assist you.

  13. My husband and me are applying to the court for step parent PR (for my step daughter) we will be using a lawyer as the biological mother has refused to sign the paperwork. (She’s not seen her in over 6 years)
    If we are seeking a lawyer will the biological mother also need a lawyer for court or can she represent herself? She is claiming we will be paying the cost of her lawyer as we will be taking her to court?
    Also would it be possible for us to represent ourselves rather that going through a lawyer? (Although a lawyer seems a safer option)

    1. Dear Georgina, thank you for your comment. Either and/or all parties to court proceedings are entitled to represent themselves. There is no legal requirement to instruct a lawyer to represent you. It would be unusual for a court to make an order that you pay the costs of the other party in Children Act proceedings unless there are very compelling reasons to do so.

  14. My ex partner and his wife are applying for her to have PR of my children, there is a contact order in place where my children have contact on certain days with their father. I don’t agree to giving her PR. Do you think the courts would issue this in her favour?

    1. Dear Maria, thank you for your query. I’m afraid I can’t advise you without knowing the specific facts of your case. The success of the application will depend on a number of factors but the overwhelming factor that the court must consider is whether it is in your children’s best interests for their step-mother to be granted PR. I recommend that you seek advice from a Resolution lawyer near to you so that they can provide more specific advice and assist you, if necessary, through the court proceedings.

  15. My question is if my partner and I obtain PR for him and I should die for whatever reason. Would my partner be able to continue with the children’s upbringing or would PR go to their biological father? Would he still get access at all after I’m gone?

    1. Dear Gemma, thank you for your comment. We are unable to advise on specific cases in this forum. I would recommend that you seek advice from a Resolution lawyer as to the options available to you and your new partner.

  16. I have raised my 12 year old stepson since he was 18 months old, and since he was 4 his biological father hasn’t seen him or had any contact at all. His mum and I have divorced over a year ago but I’ve still been having access to my stepson on equal terms to our 2 other children. All 3 children now live with me full time (4 months) with a view to it eventually becoming as close to 50/50 as possible. My ex wife has agreed to me having PR but as we’re now divorced how would we go about this??

    1. Thank you for your comment James. It is not possible to enter into a step parent responsibility agreement in relation to your step son as you are no longer married to his mother. It is very important that you obtain parental responsibility for your step son and formalise his residence with you. You should consider applying for a child arrangements order confirming that your step son lives with you. This would automatically confer parental responsibility on you for the duration for the order. Ideally, the order would be agreed by your step son’s mother and the application to court would be made with her consent. We are able to help you with your application so please contact us on 0330 055 2234 or enquiries@familylawpartners.co.uk

  17. Hi, I have a letter from the police stating that my son is not safe from his natural father and his whereabouts should not be disclosed. My husband, who is a step-father to my son, wants to obtain parental responsibility. What should we do? How can we apply to court if the child is at risk from his natural parent? The respondent father will become a party to the proceedings and it is not safe if he gets information about us and our son.

    1. Thank you for your comment Yulia. Your husband could gain parental responsibility for your son by way of a step-parent parental responsibility agreement or by making an application at court. It is a requirement that your son’s father is served with the application if he has parental responsibility for your son. If your address needs to remain confidential then this can be omitted from the paperwork if you complete a form C8. I hope this helps.

  18. I’ve read that you don’t have to be married for step parent adoption of a child you just need to live with your partner and the child for at least 6 months. Is this true for now?

    My daughter’s biological father has had no contact for coming up to 3 years I recently tried to get in touch with him for child maintenance as I have never received a penny off of him. My daughter is coming up to 3 years old and knows my partner as her daddy. How does child maintenance affect the adoption does it play a part? Does it become in my favour as I’ve mentioned the adoption also to him and had no response? How likely is step parent adoption?

    1. Thank you for your comment. It is not necessary for your partner to ne married to you in order to adopt your child. It is important to remember that adoption changes your child’s legal parenthood permanently. Your child would no longer have any legal relationship with their biological father (and yes, this means that he would no longer be liable to pay child maintenance). If the adoption was successful, your child’s birth certificate would be replaced by the adoption certificate which can create questions and confusion over identity as the child grows up. I recommend that you take legal advice to explore the options that are available to formalise the relationship between your partner and child, if you contact the office we would be happy to book you in for an initial meeting.

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