Today’s households bear little resemblance to the “idealised” nuclear family of the 1950s. Blended families, with children of previous relationships and perhaps a new set of offspring, are increasingly common. Many parents and stepparents are eager to understand how family law applies to their new-age family unit that reflects a combination of the Brady Bunch/Modern Family prototype. Each partner or parent’s rights and responsibilities are suddenly not as clear cut as they once were and the saying “yours, mine and ours” is greyer than ever.
Two important family law principles to bear in mind:
• The Court is able to make parenting orders – that is, orders for a child to spend time with a person amongst other things – in favour of a parent of the child or any other person concerned with the care, welfare and development of a child e.g. stepparents, grandparents, and partners of parents.
• The paramount consideration the Court must adopt in making an order, is ‘what is in the best interests of the child?’ This may mean making an order that a child spend time with, or in some circumstances even live with, a person who is not their biological parent.
The ‘best interests’ principle shapes the legal landscape for parents, stepparents and other people concerned with a child’s welfare when it comes to the breakdown of a marriage or de facto relationship or in any other circumstance that the Court may be required to make parenting orders.
Often stepparents are more involved in the daily work of authorising medical care, signing school forms, applying for passports and enrolling children in daycares and schools than perhaps a biological parent may be. This turns to the issue of parental responsibility which is a right of a parent that, in order to be displaced, would require a court order.
Your family may benefit from counseling to deal with the emotional complications of a blended family. But for the legal issues, we recommend the help of a Family Law Specialist.
What if the other biological parent is absent or abusive?
We know that stepparents often assume much of the real, day-to-day (sometimes thankless) work of parenting. As a stepparent, you may also assume varying degrees of legal responsibility through a parenting order or legal guardianship.
A parenting order may allow you to go to all school events that parents are invited to, get information about your stepchild’s education and health and spend time and communicate with your stepchild if you separate from his/her biological parent.
Adoption terminates the legal tie between the child and another biological parent and is generally granted only when the child’s biological parent has died, has chosen to give up their child for adoption, is not involved in the child’s life, or if for other reasons, the court deems adoption in the child’s best interests.
Legal guardianship can be granted by a parent to another person or in some cases may be initiated by the court. Guardianship gives another person responsibility for protecting the child and making decisions about his or her care. Guardianship orders are generally made when a parent is unable to care for a child.
Might I become responsible for paying child support for a stepchild?
The Department of Human Services will not order you to pay child support for a stepchild. However, a court may make an order for a stepparent to pay child maintenance only if the Court deems that they have a duty to maintain the child after determining that it is proper for that duty to exist. Any duty that may exist does not detract from the responsibility of a child’s parent to maintain their child and will always be secondary to the parent’s duty.
What about inheritance?
You do not have to leave your stepchildren anything in your Will, but you may. If you die without a Will and have not adopted your stepchild, he or she will not receive any automatic distribution under intestacy laws.
Building a new family with children of other relationships is hard work, and most stepparents do an admirable job. A sound understanding of what can seem quite a complex legal framework of your rights and responsibilities can make the process easier. Let your lawyer help.