HCR Law Events

12 May 2023

Stepparents: what are my legal rights?

Stepmother’s Day falls on 21 May this year and is celebrated in the United States. It falls one week after International Mother’s Day, which differs from our widely celebrated day in the UK. In stark contrast, Stepmother’s Day is not well known or celebrated.

Depending on the blended family concerned, there may be a genuine reason for not celebrating. Regardless of how good a relationship is between a stepchild and stepparent, the child concerned may feel uncomfortable in celebrating – for example, they could feel that they are betraying their own mother by doing so, or they may have been the subject of a difficult divorce.

However, if matters are dealt with positively by the adults involved, a stepchild can feel comfortable in giving thanks to their stepmother for their love and support.

Parental responsibility

Many would say that being a stepmother is a thankless job! Of course, mothers will also say the same thing. However, the difference in their roles is the lack of decision-making ability that a stepmother has in their stepchild’s life. They do not automatically acquire ‘parental responsibility’ – a legal concept encompassing all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities, and authority that a parent has in relation to their child or property.

So, while a stepparent may help bring up their stepchild, financially contribute or be a significant role model, when it comes to the important decisions, generally they have very little say.

However, stepmothers can acquire parental responsibility and there may be genuine reasons for doing so. If obtained, it will enable the stepmother to be part of the important decision-making process regarding the child’s upbringing. Parental responsibility is something that a birth mother acquires automatically, and the second parent can acquire in several ways.

Having an additional person with parental responsibility – in this case the stepmother – may, in some instances, create more issues than it solves. However, there are circumstances where it would be appropriate. For example, if the child lives with their father and stepmother, and their stepmother undertakes most of their day-to-day care but the child’s birth mother is still involved in their life.

Parental responsibility could also be seen as an alternative to adoption – as it won’t remove parental responsibility from the birth mother or separate the child from membership of that part of the family.

Stepparent parental responsibility agreements

The easiest way for a stepmother to acquire parental responsibility is by entering into a stepparent parental responsibility agreement with all those that already have parental responsibility. If that cannot be agreed, she can apply to the court. This has been possible since 30 December 2005, provided that the stepparent is married to or the civil partner of a parent of the child who has parental responsibility.

Being part of a blended family can be difficult but also rewarding. Getting legal advice at an early stage can help avoid problems later. A family solicitor can assist any members of the family to help ensure that the best decisions can be made for the child concerned.

Ultimately, if all the adults involved are positive and respectful of one another, a stepmother can be a fantastic, supportive influence, and be an important role model in their stepchild’s life.

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About the Author
Sally Robinson, Partner, Head of Family, Central England

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