With nearly one in every two marriages ending in divorce, and people forming new relationships, today a family with step-children, half-brothers and sisters is increasingly common.

It’s tough enough for most parents to co-parent when they’re not living in the same home, but when new partners enter the picture it can all get complicated!  When things are amicable between the parents it’s much easier to maintain a balance.  Where possible, introducing a new partner to your ex-partner at an early stage can help avoid friction and allows the children to see you all getting along.  It’s also important that a step-parent doesn’t try to replace the natural parent and respects the natural parent’s place in the child’s family.

The role of a step-parent

Step-parents don’t have the same rights as natural parents unless they are awarded parental responsibility.  Generally, parental responsibility is automatically a right of the birth mother and the biological father, provided he is shown on the child’s birth certificate or married to the mother of his biological child.

However, step parents can get parental responsibility in one of three ways:

  1. A parental responsibility agreement
  2. A court order
  3. A ‘lives with’ order (previously referred to as ‘residence’ or ‘custody’).

Sometimes step-parents need to have parental responsibility.  If, for example, they’re married to the natural mother of a child, and Mum is away they may need to make important decisions for the child.  For instance, outside of life and death situations, they may have to give permission for a medical professional to administer medication, take them out of school to visit a dentist or doctor or provide parental consent for the child to take part in a school activity.

A step-parent cannot even pick up a child from school without a letter of authority from the natural parent without a parental responsibility agreement or court order.

To get a parental responsibility agreement – all existing parties who hold parental responsibility must agree.

If the child or children live with a step-parent and any of the existing holders of parental responsibility don’t agree, you can apply for a court order or ‘lives with’ order.

Children v. Step-children

Children from both partners in a second marriage and perhaps new children of the two partners can create all kinds of interesting challenges!

For example, a family may have two or three different surnames – which can cause confusion at school.  Especially as kids often just refer to each other as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ rather than step-brother, half-brother or sister.

If there are children and step-children, it is important to consider your circumstances very carefully and, if necessary, make a specific will to ensure your children don’t lose their inheritance by default.  If one partner dies intestate the bulk of the estate will go to their spouse – and perhaps later to the spouse’s children, leaving the deceased person’s natural children with nothing.

If you need advice about your situation and managing the needs of your ‘blended family’ E J Coombs would be happy to assist, with tailored advice to suit your circumstances.