If you or your partner have children from a previous relationship living with you then you are a stepfamily. When stepparents are taking full day-to-day responsibility for stepchildren they may want to make their relationship with these children more formal. One way to do this is adoption. A stepparent who is the partner of the natural parent of a child can apply to adopt their partner’s child or children. There are other ways now to take on parental responsibility for stepchildren and you need to consider what is best for the children, you and your partner.
What is the effect of an adoption order?
When a stepparent adopts their partner’s child it ends the legal relationship between that child and their other natural parent and that wider family network e.g. grandparents and other relatives. Sometimes that makes the child feel that they have to choose between different adults and later may blame you or your partner. The child loses all maintenance and inheritance rights too. It means you become the legal parent of the child forever and have parental responsibility. The child’s surname can be changed unless the court prevents this and the child acquires rights to your estate along with your own children. So, if you and your present partner divorce you still remain legally the child’s parent.
What are the alternative orders?
The court must look at all the options so you and your partner will need to consider the alternatives.
Parental Responsibility Agreement or Order
An amendment to the Children Act 1989 (section 4A) enables a stepparent to get Parental Responsibility (PR) for their stepchild either by agreement or a court order if you are married to or are the civil partner of the child’s parent. If your husband, wife or partner is the only person with PR for the child, they can make a formal agreement with you to share PR. If the child’s other parent also has PR, both parents need to agree to let you share PR. The official form – C(PRA2) and guidance notes is at www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk. Alternatively, you can apply to any family court for a Parental Responsibility Order. (See our leaflet Parental Responsibility).
This order names the person with whom the child will live. If one of the persons named does not already have PR i.e. the stepparent, the order gives PR to that person. You then share parental responsibility with the child’s parents, although you do not have the same rights as a parent. Neither the parent nor stepparent can change the child’s surname or take them out of the country for more than one month without either the agreement of any other person who has PR or the court’s permission. You cannot appoint a guardian to look after the child if you die. If the order names the stepparent it can now be made until the child is 18. This amendment to the Children Act 1989 (section 12) means any person wanting to bring the order to an end before the child turns 18 will need the court’s permission to issue an application. This order gives you, your partner and the child stability and security but not the permanency of an adoption order.
To apply for a Residence Order you need to be married to the child’s parent or in a registered civil partnership or show that the child has lived with you for three years. Otherwise, you need the agreement of any other person who has PR for the child.
The court can make orders about contact and how PR will be exercised by you and any other person with PR. In exceptional situations, it can direct that no person may apply to court to change the orders without getting the court’s permission first.
Applying for an Adoption Order
You can now apply as a sole applicant. You must be aged 21 years or more. If you are not married to the child’s parent, you need to satisfy the court that you are living as partners in an enduring family relationship. The local authority social worker making their report about your suitability to adopt must have regard to the need for stability and permanence in your relationship with your partner. You can be a same sex couple and do not have to be in a civil partnership. You need to have been living as a family for at least six months before applying for an adoption order.
Where do I make the application and who needs to be told?
The application is made either to the Family Proceedings Court, the County Court or the High Court. Fees apply at the time you make your application and this is not refunded if you do not go ahead or the court decides not to make an adoption order. See www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk for current fees.
You will also need to formally tell the local authority children’s department of your intention to adopt at least three months before you issue your application. They must appoint a social worker to do a detailed report for the court about the child, the child’s family circumstances and about you and your partner, so they will want to meet with you and the child.
What will the court do?
The court must decide what is best for the child/ children. The court has to find out if the natural parents agree to the adoption. If they both have PR for the child, the court will appoint an officer from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) to interview them and witness their formal written consent. If a parent does not have PR, the court is not required to have their consent before making an adoption order. However, if this parent has a close connection with their child, it is likely the court will want to find out their views, as well as the child’s. If the parent with PR does not agree with your application or the CAFCASS officer considers there are special circumstances, the court appoints that officer as a children’s guardian. Their job is to represent the child and make sure the court is informed of the child’s wishes and those of all relatives before making the order.
Should we tell the other parent?
Yes, because the court must consider the child’s connection with the other parent, even if there is no current contact. The court will have to take into account the child’s whole family network and their relationships with grandparents and other signifi- cant people before making an adoption order, not just their current family arrangements. This is a spe- cific requirement in section 1, Adoption and Children Act 2002. It may be confusing for children as they grow up to find out that they have no legal connec- tion with one side of their natural family. The social worker and the CAFCASS officer will contact the other parent as well as you and the child and make recommendations in a written report to the court.
How long does it take?
If there is agreement it may be straightforward. It is best to check with the court when making your application. Sometimes there is delay in getting the local authority report or appointing a CAFCASS officer.
If there are special circumstances or no agreement, it may take longer as the children’s guardian will want to interview the child and other family members. If it is very complicated you may need legal advice.
Does the court have to make an Adoption Order?
The court has to consider what order is best for the child and make the child’s welfare the first priority. So the court will consider if one of the alternative orders is more suitable or make no order after tak- ing into account everyone’s views and the child’s needs for a stable family life.
Factors to consider
The children’s wishes and your partner’s/ ex-partner’s views.
The implications of ending the legal relationship between the child and one of their parents.
What you want to achieve: to become the child’s legal parent forever or to share parental responsibility with the child’s parents, while the child is growing up as a child in a stepfamily.
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