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Understanding Step-Parent Adoptions and Parental Responsibility

It is estimated that 1 in 3 families are now step-families or blended families, and they are the fastest growing family type in the UK. Step-families can arise when a parent of a child marries or enters a civil partnership following separation from the child’s other parent, or following the death of the other parent.

Undoubtedly, whatever the circumstances, adjusting to a step-family can be difficult for all parties the child, but the focus should always be on the best interests of the child or children.

Who is a step-parent?

A person must be married or in a civil partnership with the child’s biological parent in order to be a step-parent.

What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility gives a person responsibility to make decisions in relation to a child. It also means that they must be consulted before decisions about the child are made. These important decisions include naming a child, deciding where a child shall live or spend their time, whether they can travel abroad or have medical treatment. This list is not exhaustive and it involves making a decision in respect of all of the important decisions in a child’s life.

Who has parental responsibility?

A child’s biological mother automatically has parental responsibility for a child, and a child’s biological father has parental responsibility, if married to the child’s mother at the time of the child’s birth or, if they are named on the child’s birth certificate.

Why may a step-parent need parental responsibility?

Sometimes, a decision is made to give a step-parent parental responsibility as well as the child’s biological parents. There are many reasons this decision may be reached, for example, to provide the step-parent with a level of authority and responsibility for the child, for example to enable the step parent to consent to urgent medical treatment for the child if necessary. Parental responsibility can be granted by way of a written agreement (by all persons with parental responsibility) or by an order of the court.

What is adoption?

Adoption is the legal process by which a child (or children) become full, permanent and legal members of a new family. Adoption involves the biological parent/parents losing their legal status as parents and as such, they also lose parental responsibility for the child. Adoption orders are irreversible and so once made, cannot be undone unless in extremely limited circumstances.

Step-parent adoption enables the biological parent to retain parental responsibility for a child, but enables their spouse/civil partner to become a legal parent. Upon a step parent adoption, they would also then obtain parental responsibility.

What is the difference between simply obtaining parental responsibility for a step child and adoption?

The main differences between step-parent adoption and parental responsibility are as follows:

Parental status

A step-parent who adopts a step-child would then become a parent of the child. A step-parent who does not adopt the child and who obtains parental responsibility would not become a parent, they would remain a step-parent.

Status of others with parental responsibility

If a step-parent adopts a child, they will be taking away the parental status of the child’s mother or father (whichever is relevant). However, when a step-parent obtains parental responsibility, nothing changes for the existing parents, they both remain parents with parental responsibility but they now must consult the step-parent before making any important decisions in relation to the child.

Financial responsibility

An adoptive parent has financial responsibility for the child. This means that if the adoptive parent separates from the biological parent, they would still remain a parent under the adoption order, and financial claims could be made against them by the other parent (such as for financial provision under Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989 or for child maintenance via the child maintenance service). A step-parent, even if they had parental responsibility, would not have financial responsibility for the child.

Right to spend time with the child

If an adoptive parent was to separate from the biological parent they are entitled to apply to the court for an order enabling them to spend time with the child. A step parent with parental responsibility is also entitled to apply to the court for an order enabling them to spend time with the child.

Preference would not necessarily be given to the biological parent as the primary test for the court is what is in the child’s best interests.


If the child does not have British citizenship, upon being adopted by a British citizen, the child would then become a British citizen and would be entitled to a British passport.

If the child is not adopted by the step –parent and the parties enter into a parental responsibility agreement, the child does not automatically become entitled to British citizenship or a British passport.


If an adoptive step parent dies without a will, the adopted child may inherit in accordance with intestacy rules as if they were the biological child of the deceased adoptive parent.

When a step-parent obtains parental responsibility, their step-child does not automatically inherit from them and this would happen only if the step parent were to leave assets to the step-child in their will.

Termination of the agreement

Adoption is permanent and the court cannot reverse it except in very limited circumstances. A parental responsibility order or agreement can be terminated by agreement or court order. An adoption order does not terminate when a child is 18. A parental responsibility agreement does terminate when a child is 18 and the child is able to make their own decisions.

In the event that you would like further information in relation to a step-parent adoption or step-parent parental responsibility agreement we would be happy to discuss the process further with you. Please do not hesitate to contact our family law experts on 0330 822 3451 for further information. Alternatively, request a call at a more convenient time.