Blended Families: Legal issues and potential solutions for step-parent families

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We outline the key issues that arise for so called “blended families” in England & Wales - those where children are being brought up in families with step-parents and step or half siblings - and the options available to those families to formalise their relationships, such as parental responsibility agreements and adoption.

The 2011 census found that there were 544,000 step-families with dependent children in England and Wales, and that 1.1 million children were being brought up in “blended families” (defined as those consisting of a couple, the children they have had together, and their children from previous relationships). Practical, legal and financial issues arise for these families. For instance:

  • Unless a step-parent has parental responsibility for their step-children, they have no legal standing when it comes to making important decisions about a child’s life – ie, where that child should go to school, what medical treatment they should receive, what religion they should be brought up in.
  • Financially, the adults in the family may wish to ensure that all children (step-children and natural children) are treated equally – both during their lifetimes and on death.

Possible solutions to legal and financial issues

Many of these issues can be dealt with by way of appropriate legal documentation, but the parent and step-parent will need to be clear, when instructing lawyers, about exactly whom they wish to benefit, and how they wish them to benefit.

Adults in blended families always need a Will to ensure their assets will pass in accordance with their wishes after their deaths - the intestacy provisions do not allow step-children to benefit; although step-children may be able to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, litigation is always far from ideal.

Where family trusts are being set up, specific thought must be given to whom the settlor may wish to benefit – a trust set up with the sole purpose of paying the settlor’s grandchildren’s school fees may not (without careful drafting) be able to pay the fees of a step-grandchild, potentially leading to issues as to the differing treatment of children within one family unit.

Possible solutions to practical issues

The practical issues are potentially more difficult to address and may require formalisation of the step-parent/child relationship. Step-parents will not have parental responsibility for their step-children, and without this they cannot make decisions, or be involved in making decisions, about the child’s accommodation, education, name, religious upbringing, medical treatment and even holiday destinations foreign travel, albeit if they are in a happy relationship with the child’s biological parent they are likely to be consulted on an informal basis.

The most common method of doing so, is for the step-parent to acquire parental responsibility for the step-child, which they have been able to do since December 2005 by a standalone parental responsibility agreement (with the consent of everyone else with parental responsibility) or Court Order, provided they are married to the child’s natural parent. Where the step-parent is not married to the child’s parent they can apply to the court for a child arrangements order that the child live with them and the biological parent, which will grant them parental responsibility for the duration of that order.

However, parental responsibility does not create the legal relationship of parent and child – or give effect to the rights and responsibilities that come with that (including, sometimes crucially, rights of succession, citizenship etc). The only way in which a step-parent can legally become the child’s parent is for them to adopt the child. Adoption in those circumstances is fairly rare, and is generally an option of last resort - given it severs completely the child’s legal ties with the other biological parent. In reality, adoption is only likely to be appropriate where the child in question has no, or a very poorly established, relationship with the other biological parent and the wider family on that side.

It is clear that blended families need to give careful consideration, and take appropriate advice, as to the legal, financial and practical issues that arise and how those can best be dealt with.

A longer version of this article first appeared in the journal Private Client Business (2016) No. 6.

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