All mothers and most fathers have legal rights and responsibilities as a parent - known as parental responsibility.
Parental responsibility is the term for all the obligations parents have towards their children, both material and emotional, and for the rights parents have to take certain action on their children’s behalf for the benefit of the children (such as consenting to medical treatment and arranging education) .
The law encourages both parents to be involved in their children’s lives, even if their own relationship breaks down. If an application for an adoption order is made, the court has to consider whether making an alternative order, or no order at all, would be better for the child in the long run.
Parental responsibility agreement/order
A step-parent who is married to, or has entered into a registered civil partnership with, the parent of a child, may acquire parental responsibility for the child, sometimes without the need for a court order at all.
One way of doing this, if there is no dispute, is by a simple but formal agreement with the parent who is his or her partner, and the child’s other parent if he or she also has parental responsibility. Even if there isn’t agreement, the court can decide that it is right to make an order giving the step-parent parental responsibility.
With this agreement/order, the step-parent will share parental responsibility with the child's parents. Importantly, the step-parent can make decisions that a parent would be able to make, but the agreement/order does not cut the child off from one half of his or her birth family.
Child arrangements order
A court may make this order (previously known as Residence and contact orders) setting out with whom a child is to live or spend time This order settles the arrangement as to who the child is to live with. If a residence order is made for a person who is not a parent, it also gives that person parental responsibility, as well as the birth parents. So if a child arrangements order is made stating that a child is to live with his or her mother and stepfather, the stepfather would acquire parental responsibility. However, he does not have all the same rights as a parent, because this order does not give the stepparent the power to agree to the child’s adoption or appoint a guardian to act after his death.
In addition, while a child arrangements order stating where a child should live is in force, no one ( either parent or stepparent) is allowed to change the child’s surname or arrange for the child’s emigration unless all the people who have parental responsibility agree to this, or the court makes an order permitting this.
Special guardianship order
Special guardianship is a new legal option for when adoption is not suitable. This order gives parental responsibility for the child to a Special Guardian. But unlike adoption, the birth parents remain the child's legal parents and have limited parental responsibility.
A special guardianship order is rarely used in a step-parent adoption, but it might be suitable for children and carers who have cultural and religious difficulties with adoption. The CoramBAAF website has more information about this option.
You may wish to get independent legal advice for any of the options.