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A ‘how to’ guide for step parents

As a follow-up to Marilyn Stowe’s video blog post on the subject, Senior Solicitor Jennifer Williamson from Stowe Family Law’s Winchester office has written this detailed ‘how to’ guide for step parents facing marriage breakdown.

The Disney portrayal of the evil stepmother tends to be far from the truth. Most step-parents have genuine, loving relationships with their step-children. What then if the marriage breaks down? How can a step-parent go about maintaining their relationship with their step-child?

What can I do if my ex won’t let me see my step-children?

If communication and amicability has entirely broken down then direct discussion with the child’s biological parents might not seem possible. Mediation could, however, make that possible and it should almost always be considered. Many mediators can offer special facilities (such as “shuttle” mediation) for people who do not currently feel able to be in the same room as each other. It can be helpful to bear in mind that agreed arrangements tend to be more likely to endure than arrangements that may need to be ordered by the Court. In the vast majority of cases, mediation must be formally considered in any event (by way of attending a MIAM) before any Court application can be issued.

If direct discussion and/ or mediation have drawn a blank then what next?

There are a variety of options. Legal advice from a solicitor specialising in family law is a good start. Potentially there might be scope for reaching agreement in solicitors’ correspondence. It might be, however, that your solicitor will suggest that you consider making a Court application, or seeking your former partner’s agreement to ask an arbitrator to resolve the matter.

So, how to go about making a Court application of this nature?

The application will almost certainly be for a “Child Arrangements Order”, which is an order about who the child should live with, or how much time they should spend with someone. The step-parent will need to think about what they ideally would ask the Court to order. Is occasional contact sought, or something more substantive such as regular overnight stays?

A step-parent who was married to one of the child’s parents will, whether the marriage is over or not, be automatically entitled to apply for a CAO. The situation is not quite the same for a step-parent who was not in a marriage. Again, a person in that position should seek early legal advice. It could be that they might need the Court’s permission before making their application.

Once the step-parent is satisfied that they have exhausted non-Court options and that the Court will accept their application, the relevant form (C100) should be completed. This is readily available on the HMCTS website, where it is also possible to check which Court the application should be sent to. The Court will probably need at least five copies of the completed form (one for itself, one for each parent and step-parent, and one for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, “CAFCASS”), plus payment of the Court fee which is currently £215. Whilst it is possible to make the application without involving a solicitor, step-parent applications often involve complex considerations and early involvement from a specialist family law solicitor can be invaluable.

What happens after the Court has issued the application?

After the Court has issued the application, the case will benefit from a timetable. CAFCASS will contact all parties to conduct initial safeguarding checks, so that it can advise the Court about whether there has, for instance, been any Police or Social Services involvement. All parties should remember that whilst CAFCASS recommendations do not bind the Court, they tend to be highly persuasive, so a child-centric approach in all dealings with CAFCASS is advisable.

At the first hearing the Court will try to identify what the particular issues are. Each and every case and family is unique, but the Court will probably need to know at least the following when considering a step-parent application:

  • Are the children at risk of harm with any of the parents or step-parents?
  • What were the arrangements for the children before the breakdown of the marriage/relationship?
  • What was the nature of the child’s relationship with the relevant step-parent – did they live in the same household? If so, for how long?
  • If the relevant step-parent was married/in a relationship with the non-resident parent then how well known was the step-parent to the child? How often did they see each other and for how long etc?
  • When did the arrangements change (which might be the same question as when did the step-parent’s relationship with the parent breakdown)?
  • Is the step-parent a mother or father to the relevant child’s half-sibling?

The issues arising in step-parent applications can be very different to those arising in a case involving only blood parents. It is all the more important for a step-parent to act with all expediency and the benefit of legal advice.

Specialist legal advice can be sought from Stowe Family Law: we are a specialist firm with offices across the UK.

Jennifer was a solicitor based at Stowe Family Law's Winchester office. She is an accredited member of Resolution and practices in all aspects of family law. These included dealing with married and unmarried couples, pre- and postnuptial agreements, divorce, finances and cohabitation.

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