ASK A FAMILY LAWYER
Each week, Stowe Family Law solicitors answer readers’ questions on different legal issues. This week’s query goes to Jennifer Williamson, a senior solicitor based in our Winchester office.
“I got divorced earlier this year and my ex has the kids. I see them twice a month. She has talked of moving in her with her boyfriend and I’d like to know what my rights as the absent parent are.”
Separation and divorce can be a very difficult time, especially when it comes to talking about, and hopefully agreeing, arrangements for the children. A huge number of potential issues and considerations should be dealt with at an early stage. Thankfully, there are a lot of resources available to help, many of them free of charge.
A good first port of call is the Cafcass website which features a number of useful information leaflets. Of particular note is their parenting plan which, if completed together, can be of great assistance.
Also of note is the Cafcass helpline for separated parents, which is currently being piloted in various parts of the country, including North Yorkshire where our head office is located.
Married or not?
The question of whether or not a child’s parents were married can sometimes be relevant. If an unmarried parent is not named on the child’s birth certificate then, generally speaking, they will not have parental responsibility for them. This could restrict them from receiving information and making decisions about the child’s life. In such instances, a parental responsibility agreement could be drawn up , or, if that is not possible a court application should be seriously considered.
It can be helpful to talk about when, and how, a child should be introduced to either parent’s new partner, when this situation is still hypothetical and neither parent has formed a new relationship. This can help with objectivity.
There are no strict rules about how long a relationship must have been in place, but most people agree that it is reasonable to delay an introduction until the relationship is settled and has some degree of permanence about it. The introduction should be dealt with sensitivity to both the child and the other parent. But unless a parent’s new partner poses a genuine risk of harm to the children (including emotional harm), it is not generally advisable to completely oppose an introduction. Mediation can be a really good place to talk about concerns of this nature.
New partners and even step-parents do not automatically have parental responsibility for their partner’s children. This means that they will not be entitled to make unilateral decisions for the children about important issues.
In circumstances where a child has a different surname to the parent with whom they live, it is not unusual for that parent to consider whether or not a change of surname would be appropriate or desirable.
It is not permissible for one parent to unilaterally change the surname by which a child is known. Should the other parent consent there is no problem. If, however, agreement cannot be reached then the parent wishing to make the change would need to make an application to court. A large number of factors need to be considered but on the whole the court is unlikely to remove the original surname completely and the outcome is often a double-barrelled surname at best.
Key decisions: schools and medical issues
If both parents having parental responsibility, key decisions about the children should be discussed and agreed together. This includes such thorny issues as the children’s schooling and medical issues. Each parent should keep the other fully updated in this regard.
The parent without the day-to-day care of the children can ensure that they are not inadvertently sidelined by, for example, maintaining regular contact with the school, signing up for ‘parent mail’ and arranging to be sent copies of school reports and all the correspondence which is sent to the parent with care. Likewise, the child’s GP can be informed about the breakdown of the marriage/relationship and made aware, in writing, that neither parent should make significant treatment decisions alone. It will be easier for the school and GP if any such letters are co-signed by both parents.
The question of whether or not a parent could, or should, relocate with a child is very significant.
In and of itself, relocation within England and Wales without the consent of both parents is not unlawful. That said, if relocation would change the way that the child has contact with their other parent then, ideally, the matter should be discussed at an early stage, well before any move. If a domestic relocation would place either parent in breach of a child arrangements order then, unless agreement can be reached, the court should be asked to order what is to happen.
International relocation, where the child is removed from the jurisdiction of England and Wales altogether, is unlawful unless all people with parental responsibility for the child give their consent to the move, or the court permits the relocation by making an order.
Specialist advice should always be obtained – for example, from a Stowe family lawyer – in relation to all relocation issues.