In the United States, 16th September is recognised as National Step Family Day. It aims to celebrate step-families, recognise that “blended families” are an ever increasing part of our society, and also flag up that newly formed step families often need support.
Here in the UK, this might all feel a bit cheesey – but perhaps our friends in America have a point.
One in three people in the UK are now part of a step-family in some form, be that as a step-parent, step-child, step-sibling or step-grandparent. However, research has found that it can take a minimum of four years for a step-parent to build a relationship with their step child.
With rising numbers of increasingly complex family structures, how can the law help to keep parents and children protected?
Step parents often play an integral parenting role, providing emotional and physical care to their step children – but they frequently have no legal rights or responsibilities.
According to family charity One Plus One, step-families are one of the fastest growing forms of family in the UK. In 2009, almost 20% of marriages involved the remarriage of one partners and 16% involved the remarriage of both partners.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The actual number of step-families in the UK is much greater because couples are more likely to cohabit than be married. In 2001, 28% of all cohabiting couples with children were stepfamilies, compared to 8% of married couples with children. We can only assume these figures continue to grow.
Whilst society has accepted couples co-habiting, the law sees things quite differently in respect of step-families. Where relationships break down between a parent and step-parent, the step parent has very little rights of access to the step child, even if that step parent has played a lead role in raising that child.
Step parents wanting to adopt their step children seems to becoming a trend, with high profile cases such as TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson’s daughter Bo being adopted by her step father, Brian Monet.
However, family courts don’t generally favour this because adoption ends all parental responsibility by the natural parent. It’s only when a child is able to make reasoned decisions by themselves, aged 12 or older, and actively wants to be adopted.
In Ulrika’s words, Bo’s step-father had “truly earned the right to be her father”, but this process still involved the standard adoption procedures including visits from social services, witness statements and permission from Bo’s biological father.
It’s understandable that some families want to cement their relationships through law, to provide protection for all involve. Natural parents can enter into Parental Responsibility Agreements with their partner, but this is only if they are married. This doesn’t remove natural parents from the equation, but means the step-parent can be involved with raising that child and all the decisions that come with that.
In circumstances where couples are co-habiting but not married, achieving Parental Responsibility for the effective step-parent is harder.
Relationship charity Relate points out that these complex family structures mean that step-parents, in whatever guise, need to acquire new skills. They recommend agreeing guidelines on how to treat the children, in particular it’s important to agree on discipline, privacy (for everybody) and arrangements with other parents.
It’s possible to draw up Step-Parenting Plans, similar to Parenting Plans. These are documents, often used by separating parents, to agree practical issues of parenting. They could be helpful for families where natural parents are separated, and where step-parents play an active role in bringing up the children.
These documents put the best interests of the children first, and state a shared commitment by all parents to their children and their future. They can cover communication, living arrangements, money, education and healthcare and emotional well-being – all of which can become sticky subjects when natural parents are no longer together.
This might seem rather formal, of course. However, I have seen first hand, as a Deputy District Judge in family courts, how painful and difficult communication can be amongst separated parents. Parenting plans and step-parenting plans can help everyone get on the same page and do best by the children affected by changing family patterns.
Whilst the circumstances that lead to a step family forming are often painful, the family unit it creates amongst parent, step-parent and children can be incredibly strong and nurturing for the children involved. My advice is to always seek the best legal advice to protect both parents and children in any family structure.
For more information please call our Family team on 0800 328 3282