Parental responsibility agreements and orders

Reviewed by Amanda Cuthbert, Stowe Family Law

Pair of male shoes lined up next to a pair of female shoes and a child's shoes

Parental responsibility gives a parent rights and responsibilities for looking after a child and making decisions about how the child is brought up. But while a mother will always have parental responsibility for her child, fathers and step-parents may not. To get parental responsibility, a father or step-parent may need a parental responsibility agreement or a parental responsibility order

Who has parental responsibility?

A child's birth mother automatically has parental responsibility.

A father will also have parental responsibility if he was married to the mother when the child was born or is registered on the birth certificate (dated December 2003 or later).

Step-parents, and unmarried fathers who are not registered on the birth certificate, do not automatically have parental responsibility. They can get parental responsibility though a parental responsibility agreement or a parental responsibility order. Acquiring parental responsibility in this way does not affect the rights of the child's mother and/or father

You must have parental responsibility if you want to be able to make key decisions about a child, for example if consent is needed for urgent medical treatment.

Parental responsibility agreements

If all the parents with parental responsibility agree, you can get parental responsibility by entering into a parental responsibility agreement.

The parental responsibility agreement must be signed by all the parents and registered with the court. An informal agreement is not enough to give you parental responsibility.

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Parental responsibility orders

You may not be able to get agreement: for example, if a divorced parent does not want a step-parent to share parental responsibility.

In these circumstances, you can ask the court to grant a parental responsibility order. The court will do this if it considers it in the child's best interests. The court will take into account factors such as the relationship between the step-parent and child, any disruption the order may cause and the views of anyone else with parental responsibility for the same child.

Other arrangements

You can only enter a parental responsibility agreement or apply for a parental responsibility order if you are the child's parent or step-parent.

A step-parent can apply for a parental responsibility order even after their relationship with the child's parent has broken down, provided they are still married to each other. The step-parent needs to show a high level of attachment and commitment to the child - usually by showing that they have become part of the child's life.

A particularly difficult circumstance is when a step-father seeks an order for parental authority because they have brought up a child thinking it is theirs, but subsequently find out it is not. If this is the case, it is vital to take legal advice.

Former partners, grandparents and other carers can apply for a child arrangements order saying that the child is to live with them. This automatically gives parental responsibility - but only for as long as the child arrangements order continues.

You can also get parental responsibility by being appointed as a guardian or adopting a child.

Financial provision

With or without a parental responsibility agreement or parental responsibility order, a step-parent may have financial obligations if a child has been treated as a 'child of the family'.

A claim can sometimes be made for financial provision, for example, maintenance, lump sums, payment of school fees or transfers of property. The court will take into account the financial needs of the child and the respective financial situations of the step-parent and mother or father of the child. It will also take account of whether the step-parent has assumed responsibility for the child, whether anyone else is responsible for maintaining the child and whether or not they believed the child was theirs.

On the death of a step-parent, a step-child may be able to make a claim against their step-parent's estate if they were either treated as a child of the family or were financially dependent on their step-parent, and the step-parent's will does not make "reasonable financial provision" for them.

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