What rights do unmarried parents have?

Mon 27th Nov 2017

What rights do unmarried parents have to see their children? During Cohabitation Awareness Week 2017 (27 November to 1 December), Sarah Evans, Partner and family lawyer at Coodes Solicitors compares the legal differences between being married and living together.

When it comes to issues such as which parent children live and spend time with, the law is exactly the same for married and unmarried couples. The significant difference, however, is that a father who is married to a child’s mother at the time of the birth automatically has parental responsibility. An unmarried father is not given parental responsibility unless he is named on the child’s birth certificate.

What is parental responsibility?

The concept of parental responsibility is difficult to define. The Children Act 1989 states ‘all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.’ However, it does not give the father an automatic right to see his child.

Of course, many unmarried fathers carry out all of the usual duties and responsibilities of fatherhood – from caring for a baby to supporting a teenage son or daughter through difficulties at school – without acquiring parental responsibility. Nonetheless parental responsibility becomes extremely important if unmarried parents break up. Without having parental responsibility, a father has no automatic right to obtain information about his child. This means he will not have to be notified if the child moves house, school or even country.

If the mother has registered the child without naming the father there are steps that can be taken to provide him with parental responsibility. A written agreement can be drawn up or if no agreement reached then an application can be made to the Court.

Once parental responsibility is established, unmarried fathers have the same legal rights as married fathers. The Court takes the approach that every child is entitled to a relationship with both their parents unless this is not possible because it would place a child at risk.

What if a father is prevented from seeing his child?

A parent who is not being permitted to see their children by the other parent should seek advice at the earliest possible opportunity. It is important to avoid the situation where the child-parent relationship is lost as this makes it much harder to re-establish contact. Mediation or negotiation may help parents reach an agreement, which can then be recorded in a Contact Agreement or Parenting Plan. If necessary an application can be made to the Court to determine who the child is to live with or what time the child is to spend with each parent.

How about step parents who choose to adopt?

The basic principle is that step-parents can only adopt children once married to the parent for 12 months. A Court application has to be made with the Local Authority Social Services department being involved to assess the suitability of the prospective adopter. The child’s natural parents, if they have parental responsibility, will be given notice and may oppose as the adoption order extinguishes their parental responsibility. The child’s views will also be sought and represented at Court by their Court appointed Guardian.

Only once all of these, sometimes competing, interests have been determined will the Court be able to decide if adoption is in the best interest of the child. These are some of the most complicated applications and advice should be sought before embarking on them.

For advice on any of these issues, please contact the Family Team at Coodes Solicitors on 0800 328 3282.

Mon 27th Nov 2017

Sarah Evans

Head of Family

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