Terminal illness – where does that leave stepchildren?

23rd May 2023

Coming to terms with a diagnosis of a terminal illness is harrowing for all the family, but what happens if you have a life-limiting illness and your children live with you and their stepparent?

Many people assume that by appointing the stepparent as your children’s testamentary guardian in your will should cover it; but it doesn’t.

If the other parent of your children has parental responsibility, in the event of your death they can immediately assume care of your children, without the need for a court order.

Having parental responsibility means you have a say in making all the main decisions about the child’s life and welfare, including where they live, who they see, as well as decisions about their health and education.

Your partner will not automatically have parental responsibility for your children, regardless of how long you have lived together and how involved they may be in the lives of your children, which is sometimes more than the biological parent on a day-to-day basis..

It is important to plan ahead and take specialist legal advice about how best to preserve the family unit and avoid uncertainty and instability for your children at a time when they will be struggling to come to terms with your prognosis.

You should consider:

  • Contacting the other parent to “test the water” about what their intentions to care for the children would be in the event of your death
  • As a bridging measure, asking your solicitor to prepare a Delegation of Parental Responsibility, so that if you become incapable of making decisions, or pass away, then your partner can take over the reins, very much like a Power of Attorney
  • Asking your solicitor to make an application to the Family Court for a Child Arrangements Order in favour of your partner, ideally during your lifetime, so that you have the peace of mind that all your affairs are in order and know who will be caring for your children.

Every child and every family is different. Some children have very little to do with their other biological parent, in which case it makes more sense that they remain in the same family home and unit; the “status quo” to maintain their stability.

Where there are half siblings there is also a strong argument to keep them together.

If the other parent has a shared care order, or spends regular time with them, they are more likely to succeed in having the children moved to their care, but there would need to be careful thought and commitment to the ongoing relationship with any half-siblings.

While there may be other pressing concerns about your health, the knowledge that arrangements for your children are settled will bring some peace of mind.