Step-parents’ rights on divorce

26 September, 2017

More than ten per cent of households with dependent children in the UK are step families, which represents a significant proportion of the population. However many step-parents are unaware what rights and responsibilities they have, if any, in relation to the children of their spouse, particularly should the relationship break down. Here lawyer Claire Tollefson from law firm Cripps Pemberton Greenish, explains the issues.


What is a step-parent?

In order to be a step-parent, the man or woman must be married to one of the child’s biological parents. They do not become a step-parent simply by living with their partner, no matter how long for. They must be married to them.


What rights do step-parents have?

A key misconception is that of parental responsibility. Parental responsibility means all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority that a parent of a child has in relation to a child by law. It confers a right to make decisions for the child, including decisions in relation to accommodation, education and medical treatment. 

Step-parents do not automatically acquire parental responsibility upon marriage to the parent of a child. This means that while they often form a very close relationship to a child, and may contribute greatly to its upbringing, they do not have the right to make decisions for that child. They could not, for example, legally give consent for medical treatment.

Step-parents can obtain parental responsibility by agreement with the other persons with parental responsibility, by obtaining a court order, or by adopting the child. Once parental responsibility is obtained it can only end by court order, or when it automatically expires when a child is 18.


What happens if the relationship with the parent ends?

A significant concern for step-parents is how they are going to maintain the close relationship that they had with a child when they are no longer with the child’s parent. A step-parent doesn’t have an automatic right to see a child who is not biologically theirs, unless they have adopted them. 

If it is not possible to reach an agreement with the child’s parent as to how the relationship should continue and develop, either directly or in mediation, a step-parent can apply to court for a Child Arrangements Order, which specifies where a child is to live and who they are to spend time with – previously known as ‘residence’ and ‘contact’. Depending on the circumstances, the court’s permission may be required prior to making such an application.


What are the financial consequences of divorce?

There are often specific financial issues to consider in relation to provision for children. While the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) can’t seek payment of child maintenance from a step-parent, the court can require a step-parent to provide continuing financial provision for a child if the child was treated as ‘a child of the family’ – which essentially means they were treated as if they were the child of both their biological parent and their step-parent. The step-parent could be ordered to pay monthly maintenance to support the child, pay a lump sum for a specific item, pay school fees, or provide a property for the child to live in while in their minority. When deciding whether to make an order, the court would look at a wide range of factors, including the financial needs of the child, whether the step-parent has assumed responsibility for the child’s maintenance and in doing so knew the child was not their own, and the liability of any other person to maintain the child.


If you have any questions or concerns about the legal rights of step-parents on divorce or any other queries around family relationships, please contact Claire Tollefson on 01892 506191 or at

This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of Inside Kent.