Taking the plunge for a second time, particularly when you have children already, is a huge step and is rarely a decision taken lightly. No two 'blended' families are the same.

Some couples live harmoniously with the step children getting along, others decide to have more children together adding to the mix. Ex-spouses can be difficult or understanding, remote or almost part of the family. Making a new relationship work with all the issues and emotions surrounding it is challenging. Rarely are there problems of a purely legal nature but detailed below are some guidelines and suggestions which may answer some questions and encourage discussion within your family which could prevent conflict in the future.

Parental Responsibility and Step Parents

It is possible for a step parent to get Parental Responsibility for their spouses or partners child if either (a) both birth parents (or anyone else with Parental Responsibility) agrees or (b) by order of the Court. 

This does not remove Parental Responsibility from either birth parent but does ensure that a step parent’s roles, rights and responsibilities are recognised in the event of the death or incapacity of a parent.

Since 5 December 2005 step parents can also acquire parental responsibility through a voluntary agreement. 

Prenuptial Agreements

Quite often a second marriage will happen to couples who, as individuals, are well established either financially or in a career or both. There may be elderly parents as well as existing children and lives are generally more complicated than the first time around. A prenuptial agreement is not just about “once bitten, twice shy”. Discussing future family situations and how they should be dealt with at the outset can, if nothing else, prevent difficulties and surprises later on.

Co Parenting Agreements

Similar to the above, a co-parenting agreement can be relevant to couples whether married, separated or divorced.  Such an agreement can explain in more detail how the parenting can work. This can be useful for teenage children who can challenge their parents, perhaps playing one off another, as well as for step parents who also need to involve absent birth parents. Questions such as “Who will attend parents evenings”, Christmas arrangements and where children should spend the holidays can be covered.

Taking Stepchildren Abroad

Travel is now very easy and holidaying abroad is common place.  However under English Law a child cannot be taken abroad without the permission of both parents and others with Parental Responsibility.  Most of the time, the other parent will happily give permission. However on some occasions permission is withheld. If this is not handled in good time so that any difficulties can be overcome as a last resort and in the absence of agreement it may be necessary to apply to the Court for an Order to do so. Such an application is likely to succeed as long as it is reasonable and in the child’s best interests. 

In certain circumstances, where a Residence Order is in place then the person in whose favour the Residence Order is made may take the child out of the UK for up to 28 days without the consent of the other parent, although it is always sensible to notify the other parent of their plans and holiday arrangements. 

Adoption

An adoption order – granting parental rights to a step parent – will only be made if it is seen as being in the child’s best interests. Whilst the in the past step parent adoption was the usual way chosen by people who wanted to take legal steps to make the family feel complete, there are a variety of alternatives available which may be more appropriate, for example acquiring Parental Responsibility. Step parent adoption is achieved through the making of an Adoption Order by a Court and that decision will be based first and foremost on what is best for the child.

Wills, Guardianship and Trusts

Existing Wills are revoked upon marriage. Should you and your new partner both die together, think about who you would want to look after your children and any step children should you both die whilst they are minors.

Whilst it may be straightforward to make provision for your new child, how can you be certain that the birth father or mother of your step children has provided for them. If you choose to bequeath more to the children from your remarriage, you should think of how to explain your decision to your step children who may also stand to benefit from their natural mother or father’s estate.

Trusts can be included in wills to make sure both a surviving spouse and children from a previous relationship are provided for.

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