Remarriage is a very common reality of modern family life. You are probably very close to your step children and play a significant role in their lives but you don't automatically have the same rights and responsibilities that biological parents have. On a day to day basis it isn't a big deal because anyone with parental responsibility can delegate their rights and responsibilities to you while you are looking after the child.

But I suspect you will feel happier if your relationship with your step-children is made more official so that it is recognised by others. You may also be concerned that, if your partner, the biological parent, were to die, you would want to be able to take care of the child yourself.

Adoption is a complicated area of law and there are lots of things to you consider if you are thinking about adopting your step-children. A court application will be needed and the Children's Services (Social Services) will be involved in the process. There is no automatic right to adopt a step-child and it is not always appropriate for every family. Every family that intends to make an application for an adoption order will be investigated by local Social Services who will prepare a report for the court of their findings. A social worker will need to make several visits to the family and undertake various checks regarding their background.

Whether or not adoption is appropriate for you and your family will depend on the outcome you are trying to achieve.

The adopted children will be recognised as the legal children of the adopting parent as if the adopting parent were one of the birth parents. Once an adoption order is made by the court,then the children will have a legally permanent relationship with the adoptive step-parent. This will result in the birth parent and the step-parent sharing Parental Responsibility for children from that point on.

The children’s legal links to their previous parent and that parent’s family are severed completely. This does not mean that contact with the other family members must stop but they are no longer legally seen as the child’s family. The other parents family will no longer be family of the child - siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles will no longer be family.

The adopted children share rights of inheritance with any other children of the family, including any children of the adopting parent. However, this can also be achieved by preparing an appropriate Will.

The adopted children lose any right to maintenance or inheritance from the other birth parent or that parent’s family.

A Parental Responsibility Agreement or Order
Parental Responsibility provides all the rights, responsibilities, authority and obligations that a parent has in relation to a child. Quite often step-parents want to have this responsibility so that they can make decisions in relation a child in their care.

A step-parent can obtain Parental Responsibility by entering into a formal agreement with all other people with Parental Responsibility - usually the birth mother and birth father. Otherwise, an application can be issued at court for a Parental Responsibility Order. The courts understand that step-parents play important roles in children’s lives. They accept that it is important for a person to have responsibility if the children are in their care on a regular basis. The courts therefore regularly grant Parental Responsibility orders to step-parents.

A Residence Order
A Residence order defines where a child resides on a permanent basis. If the step-parent is granted a Residence order they will obtain Parental Responsibility at the same time.

Generally the Courts will follow the "no order principle" which means that, if there is no argument about an , it will not be granted. Therefore, if the issue of where a child will live is agreed, there is no need for a Residence Order. In such cases, the Court may well simply grant a parental responsibility order for the step-parent.

If the child's residence is disputed, perhaps by the other birth parent, the application can become complicated. The applying parents will need to be prepared to respond to arguments raised by the other birth parent at court which can be daunting. In such cases, legal advice is highly recommended.

No Order
It may not actually be necessary for the step-parent to obtain any order at all. With the support of their partner, the birth parent of the children, the step-parent will be able to care for the child without too many restrictions or difficulties.

An intended adoptive parent can apply to adopt a child or children if, and when, the following requirements are met:-

  • The adoptive parent must be aged at least 21 years;
  • The adoptive parent must be married to the resident birth parent, or living with the resident birth parent in an enduring family relationship. The stability and permanence of the relationship will form part of the report prepared by the social worker;
  • The adoptive parent must reside in the British Isles or has been habitually resident there for at least a year;
  • The adoptive parent must have continually lived with the child for at least the last 6 months;
  • The adoptive parent must notify the local authority in writing of their intention to apply to court for an adoption order at least 3 months before submitting an application to the court;
  • The child must be 18 years of age or younger (up to the last day before their 19th birthday).

The first thing you must do is contact the local authority Children's Services to inform them of your decision to make an application for an adoption order. They must be informed at least three months before you file your application at Court. Children's Services will arrange to investigate your suitability to become the child's adoptive parent. This will include a social worker visiting you and your family, perhaps several times, to assess whether adoption is right for your child and family. At some stage, the child is likely to be seen alone by the social worker.

The Child's Best Interests

Children's Services have a duty to ensure that adoption is in your child's best interests both for now and throughout their life. It is important that your child knows the truth about his or her origins and relationships within the family and is able to understand the implications of the adoption. It may be that a child aged less than 5 years will not have this understanding and adoption may not be appropriate. However, each case is considered on its own merits and it may be appropriate for a young child to be adopted by a step-parent.

Your Child's Birth History

The Social Worker will consider it important that your child has a record of his or her early life. This might include photographs, documents, mementos and details of significant people in their life. If you have not yet told your child about their birth family history, the social worker may be able to give you some ideas to help you.

Relationships

The court will require evidence of your family's relationships particularly of stability and permanence in your relationship. This means being married, or in a civil partnership or living as partners in an enduring family relationship. Each local authority has their own idea of what amounts to an "enduring family relationship". As a minimum you will need to have lived with the child for at least 6 months before considering adoption.

Interviews of both Parents and extended family

The social worker is obliged to interview both birth parents and anyone else who has parental responsibility for the child. The court will require written consent to the adoption from them all. If agreement is refused, you will benefit from specialist legal advice - I can help. The adoption will only continue if the court feels that it is in the child's best interests. If the birth parent is deceased the court will need a copy of the death certificate. If the other birth parent has not kept in touch with the family, the court will want to know that all possible efforts have been made to find the them and may contact the Department of Work and Pensions for a correspondence address.

The social worker will also need to see the child's brothers and sisters and perhaps other members of the family who might be affected if an adoption order is made.

Referees

You may be asked to provide details of referees who can support your application.

Contact Arrangements

The social worker will ask about contact the child has with their birth parent or other birth relatives. If there is no ongoing contact at all, the simple process of being contacted by Children's Services about their child may prompt them to renew their interest. In some circumstances, you may consider it best to let sleeping dogs lie.

Once the report is completed, the social worker will discuss their recommendations with you. If you still wish to go ahead, you need to issue your application at the court with a fee (which may be waived depending on your income).

The Court

The court will consider your application and the information in the social worker's report and decide whether to make an adoption order. The decision will rest on what the Court feels is in the best interests of the child.

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