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Adoption by step-parents

This document provides general guidance regarding applications for adoption by step-parents. Your family lawyer will be able to provide specific advice based on your circumstances.

Why might a step-parent want to apply for an adoption order?

Parental responsibility is defined in law by the Children Act 1989 as:

‘…all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property.’

People with parental responsibility are entitled to have a say in major decisions about the child, such as (but not limited to) where the child should live or go to school, the giving or withholding of medical treatment and what religion they should practise.

An adoption order transfers parental responsibility to the adopter—the step-parent—and they will share this parental responsibility with their partner—the child’s birth parent. An adoption order changes the child’s legal status and means the child becomes a permanent and full member of the family unit with the step-parent in it. The adoption order undoes all the legal ties with the child’s other birth parent. The court will only make such an order once it has made extensive enquiries and only if it considers it to be in the child’s best interests.

What are the alternatives to an adoption order?

There are several different orders by which a step-parent might obtain parental responsibility for their step-child, other than by way of an adoption order. A court could make an order giving them parental responsibility or an agreement could be reached between the step-parent and the child’s birth parents that the step-parent should share parental responsibility with them. This would enable the step-parent to exercise this parental responsibility and to be involved in decision-making for the child and their upbringing.

Alternatively, a step-parent could apply for a child arrangements order setting out what time the child should spend with them. Such an order would permit the step-parent to exercise parental responsibility for the child while the order remained in force.

An adoption order would be the most ‘permanent’ and irrevocable method for a step-parent to gain parental responsibility for the child and make them part of their family.

What conditions must a step-parent meet before applying for an adoption order?

In order to apply for an adoption order a step-parent must:

  • be over 21;
  • live in the UK or have been habitually resident here for a year; and
  • be the partner of the parent whose child they wish to adopt.

The child must have been living with the step-parent for six months before the application can be made. The step-parent must also give at least three months’ written notice to the local authority where the child lives that they are going to make their application.

What is the procedure?

The application must be made on a specific form and a fee will be payable. If you make the application you will be known as the applicant and any other parent with parental responsibility (including your partner) will have the application sent to them and have a chance to prepare a response to it. They are known as the respondent(s). If a child’s father does not have parental responsibility he will not automatically be a respondent or find out about the application, but if he has ever been involved in the child’s life it is good practice to tell him about it and give him a chance to express his view on it. The court can say that he should become a respondent and he would then have a chance to formally prepare a response to set out his position.

If the child’s other birth parent (whether they are a respondent or not) does not agree to the adoption order and you are asking the court to make the order anyway (known as ‘dispensing with consent’) you must complete a statement summarising the case and the facts and reasons why you say the court should still make the order even though the birth parent is objecting.

Once it receives the application the court will fix a date and time for a first hearing (called a first directions hearing) where it decides how the case should proceed. It will order reports to be prepared, including one from the local authority looking at your suitability as an adopter and also at the matters in the checklist in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which a judge will have to consider when making a decision on the application. You will be interviewed by the local authority when it prepares this report and it will contain detailed information to help the court decide whether to make the order or not.

What happens at court?

The court will list a final hearing at which you and the child will be expected to attend. The court can decide that a party does not need to attend that hearing, although this happens very rarely. The court will want to make sure that the child understands (as far as they are able to do so) the serious and far-reaching effect of the order that you are asking the court to make. The judge will consider all the evidence from you, the child’s other parents and the reports, and make the final, binding decision.

How will the court decide what should happen?

The first concern for the court is the child’s welfare throughout their whole life. There is a checklist of things that the judge must look at to help them make their decision including:

  • the child’s wishes and feelings;
  • the child’s particular needs;
  • the likely effect on the child (throughout their life) of having ceased to be a member of the original family and becoming an adopted person;
  • the child’s age, sex, background and any characteristics that the court considers relevant;
  • any harm that the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering; and
  • the relationship that the child has with relatives and with any other person the court considers relevant, including:
    – the likelihood of any such relationship continuing and the value to the child of its doing so;
    – the ability and willingness of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, to provide the child with a secure environment in which they can develop and otherwise to meet the child’s needs; and
    – the wishes and feelings of any relatives, or of any such person, regarding the child.

The court will also have to balance the fact that ties with the birth parent will be broken with the potential benefits to the child of being adopted. To help do this it will examine the nature and quality of the relationship that the child has had with their birth parent and also examine the relationship and family ties that exist within the step-parental family unit. For example, if the birth parent has had very little involvement with the child for a long time or has never played any real role in their life or asserted their parental responsibility for them, this will make it more likely that the judge will consider it appropriate to make the adoption order.

If the child’s birth parent is involved in their life and opposes the adoption order the judge is likely to look very carefully at the motives and reasons for the application to make sure it is not being used to gain control over a child’s upbringing or to exclude the birth parent from the child’s life. Disagreements over practical arrangements or how a child should be brought up should usually be dealt with by making an application for a child arrangements order rather than an adoption order.

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