What are the legal options for step-parents who want to formalise their relationship with their step-children?

Lucy Gledhill-Flynn, Associate in the Russell-Cooke Solicitors, family and children team.
Lucy Gledhill-Flynn
4 min Read

Families today came in all shapes, sizes and blends. In 2021, around one third of families were 'blended' or step-families, confirming a fact that many individuals know to be true: the feeling of family relies on more than just DNA.

Step-parents have multiple options for formalising their legal relationship with their step-children in England and Wales. Whilst adoption is often considered the first port of call, it is by no means the only option. Step-parents may wish to consider all of the following.  

Parental Responsibility Agreements

Parental responsibility is a legal right which allows important decisions to be made about a child’s day to day care. A person with parental responsibility is able to make decisions (in collaboration with anyone else with parental responsibility for that child) such as where a child will go to school and what medical treatment a child may receive. Parental responsibility also allows a person to name or agree to a name change for a child.

Birth mothers have automatic parental responsibility for their child. Whether the biological father or second legal mother has parental responsibility will depend on the couple’s marital status and what the child’s birth certificate says. It’s important to remember that a child can only have two legal parents but more than two people can have parental responsibility at the same time.

In order for a step-parent to secure parental responsibility for their partner’s child, they could enter into a Parental Responsibility Agreement with them. In order to do this they must:

  • be married or in a civil partnership to the child’s biological parent that the child lives with;
  • get the consent of other individuals with parental responsibility for a child.

Once this agreement is drawn up and supporting documents are provided, the court is able to witness and formalise the agreement. The step-parent will then share parental responsibility for the child.

Whilst a parental responsibility agreement is a relatively simple way of obtaining parental responsibility, it involves getting the permission of anyone else who shares parental responsibility and this can prove to be a hurdle for step-parents. An agreement also does not make the step-parent a legal parent for the child.

Child Arrangements Order

Another option for step-parents is to apply to the court for a Child Arrangements “lives with” Order, which can be used to formalise the child’s living arrangements. These orders also give the step-parent parental responsibility and are helpful for those who wish to gain some legal security without following the intensive steps required for securing an alternative adoption order.

Whilst someone with parental responsibility is automatically permitted to apply for a child arrangements order, step-parents are not and they must be able to show:

  • that the step-child has lived with them for a period of three years;
  • that they are in a marriage or civil partnership where the step-child is a child of the family;
  • that they have the agreement of the local authority where the step-child is in the care of the local authority.

Without meeting one of the criteria listed above, step-parents will require permission from the court to apply for a Child Arrangements Order.

Before making an order, the court will consider a range of welfare criteria in an attempt to understand if the order is in the best interests of the child, and they may also consult with the child depending on their age and understanding. The views of the biological father or second legal mother will also be considered by the court as part of the application process, although their consent to the making of any orders is not technically required.


Adoption is often the go-to solution for step-parents when thinking about formalising a parental relationship with a child. For many, adoption carries symbolic connotations of complete connection and acceptance of a child into a family. However, adoption orders extinguish the legal rights of a biological parent so when deciding whether to make these orders, the family court scrutinise them very carefully.

For a step-parent to adopt a child, the child must have been living with them for at least six months. The step-parent must also tell their local authority that they wish to adopt their spouse or partner’s child at least three months before an application is made to the court for the adoption order. The local authority will then provide a report to assist the court before they make their final decision.

Often the biggest challenge in step-parent adoption applications is the lack of consent from the biological father or second mother with parental responsibility. This can make the application process lengthy and legally complex. However, in some circumstances the court can dispense with this requirement.

If the court makes an adoption order, it makes the step-parent a legal parent and automatically gives them parental responsibility for the child. It triggers the release of an adoption certificate, which looks very similar to a birth certificate, and severs the birth family's legal ties to the child.

How we can help

There are a number of different options for step-parents who would like to formalise the relationship with their step-children. At Russell-Cooke, we understand that this is a meaningful step for many families and, ultimately, the right advice and route to take will depend on the make-up of the family in question, each of which is perfectly unique. We are always happy to discuss and decide with you which option may best meet your family’s needs.

If you would like to speak with a member of the children team, please call +44 (0)20 3826 7528.  Alternatively, please complete our online enquiry form.

Briefings Individuals & families Family and children What are the legal options for step-parents who want to formalise their relationship with their children? adoption parental responsibility child arrangements order blended families step-parents children law