Finding yourself in the role of step parent is an increasingly common experience. Divorce and separation are routine: relationships end every day, and most parents go on to meet new partners. Less commonly, and more tragically, parents sometimes pass away, leaving a surviving spouse to raise children alone.

In most cases, new partners eventually meet the children of the earlier relationship and spend time with them. It’s very easy to fall into a semi-parental role in such situations. You’re an adult, they’re children and their other parent is not around.

A balancing act

But it’s a delicate situation. The child may resent you for being too firm with them, feeling that you are attempting to take the place of the absent parent. But equally, if their other parent has passed away, they may welcome a new parental figure in their lives as they grow up.

If the other parent is still on the scene, they will almost certainly expect you to keep a distance, and will be unhappy if you do not. This is especially likely if the break-up was acrimonious and they resent the loss of day-to-day contact with their children.

But every family is different. An absent parent may not be especially involved in the lives of his children, especially if he or she has started a second family or has a demanding job that keeps them busy or away for long periods. In those cases, you as a step parent may have a valuable role to play in the lives of the children – not a substitute for the other absent parent, but as a caregiver. Children living in difficult family situations often welcome an adult who provides stability and reassurance.

Perhaps the best approach to life as a step parent is to follow your intuition – to ‘play it by ear’. This is not a situation in which strict rules or rigid formulae are appropriate. Be sensitive to family dynamics and to the individuals involved, and adopt your approach as the situation inevitably changes over time.

The law and step parents

Step parents have no default status in family law. They do not automatically hold parental responsibility – the legal status of parent – even if married to the one of the actual parents. This means that, even if they look after the children on a daily basis, step parents have no say in the child’s education, for example, and no status in medical matters either.

Medical emergencies are one situation in which parental status is clearly in the best interests of the children – especially if the absent parent lives a significant distance away and is not easily contacted. Fortunately, there is a potential solution, as long as the step parent is married to one of the biological parents, or in a civil partnership with them. Step parent responsibility agreements are legal documents that confer parental responsibility on the step parent, in addition to the biological parents or parent.

As you might expect, such agreements require the consent of both biological parents (provided both are still living). All parties – including the step parent – sign the document in the presence of a court officer and this is then despatched for formal ratification by the family court.

If the step parent is not married to a parent, or in a civil partnership with one, an application can be made in court for the conference of parental responsibility. This is also necessary if one parent does not agree to the extension of parental responsibility. Judges will make a decision based on what they believe to be in the best interests of the child.

An expert family lawyer will be able to guide you through the options most appropriate to you and your circumstances.