Samantha Iwers, Solicitor

The nuclear family is a concept that is becoming less and less common, with many children living or spending time in more than one home, and the immediate family unit expanding to include step-parents and step-siblings. This raises questions about the role that a step-parent plays in the life of a child, and particularly the legality behind it.

Defined under the Family Law Act, a step-parent includes any person who:

  • is not a parent of the child;
  • is, or has been, married to or a de facto partner of, a parent of the child; and
  • treats, or at any time while married to or a de facto partner of the parent treated, the child as a member of the family formed with the parent.

The definition of a step-parent also includes any person that is or has been in a same sex de facto relationship with a parent of the child.

Although step-parents often undertake parenting roles, they do not automatically have parental responsibility for their step-children. Without having parental responsibility, a step-parent is not legally able to make decisions about major long-term issues, including authorising medical care, applying for passports, signing school enrolments or permission forms, or obtaining legal documents such as birth certificates for their step-children.

In circumstances where there is not a parenting plan or parenting orders in place, there is a presumption that each of the biological parents of a child has parental responsibility for the child. Both biological parents equally share decision making about major long-term issues for their children, including, for example, education, health issues and medical treatment, and religion. These duties and responsibilities continue after separation, divorce or remarriage, and can only be changed by obtaining a parenting plan or parenting order.

It is possible for a step-parent to acquire parental responsibility. For example, adoption can be considered by step-parents in certain extenuating circumstances, including when the biological parent is deceased or not actively involved in the child’s life, or if it can be established that adoption is in the child’s best interest. The adoption process can be very lengthy and difficult, and it is important that you obtain and carefully consider the legal advice from a family lawyer prior to undertaking this step.

An alternative option to acquire parental responsibility is to obtain a parenting order, either with the consent of the biological parents or by making an application to the Court. A parenting order may deal with a number of matters, including parental responsibility, the child’s living arrangements, and how much time and/or communication the child will have with each parent. Again, the primary position adopted by the Court is that parental responsibility is shared by the biological parents of a child, and a parenting order providing a step-parent with parental responsibility may only be made in special or exceptional circumstances.

The circumstances of each family are unique and, prior to taking any steps, it is important that you are fully informed of the options available to you. Your Brisbane family lawyer will be in a position to provide you with advice and guide you through the process.

Our team of experienced family and divorce lawyers in Toowoomba, Ipswich and Brisbane can be of assistance. Contact us now to make an appointment.