What is a step-parent’s position after a divorce?

kids sitting

If you’re a step-parent going through divorce and you have step-children, what measures can be taken to maintain a good relationship with your step-child and are there any financial obligations that need to be met.

A legal definition of ‘step-parent’

In England a step-parent is an individual who has married one of the biological parents of a child. Marriage is a legal prerequisite for step-parent status. Simply having lived with a biological parent is not sufficient in itself. Although an individual may have assumed a traditional parental role for a child that is not biologically theirs, it is not until they marry that they become a step-parent.

Rights after the relationship ends

When a relationship ends, a step-parent may have questions about the rights and responsibilities to their step-children. What happens after a divorce can depend on whether the step-parent acquired parental responsibility for the child during the relationship.

Parental responsibility is granted in one of three ways:

  • By agreement with all other individuals who already have parental responsibility
  • By adopting the child
  • By going through the courts and obtaining a court order.

Parental responsibility gives individuals the legal right to make decisions regarding a child’s welfare, including decisions relating to their medical treatment and education.

If a step-parent is divorced from the child’s biological parent, it does not always follow that contact between the child and step-parent will continue. Parental Responsibility for the child does not guarantee this, but it may help. Parental Responsibility may be one of a number of factors that makes an ongoing relationship, where the child sees and stays with the step-parent, a more persuasive reason for obtaining a court order that allows the step-parent to see the child.


Before approaching the court, the applying step-parent is required to try mediation first, in an attempt to resolve with the biological parent how contact between the child and step-parent can continue. If an agreement is not reached, the step-parent should consider seeking assistance from the courts.

Child Arrangements Order

When a step-parent needs assistance from the court to maintain their relationship with their step-child, they can apply a Child Arrangements Order. These orders determine where the child lives and with whom they spend their time. A variety of statutory factors come into play when step-parents apply for a Child Arrangements Order, and the court will take all relevant circumstances into account before making a decision. Likely considerations  include:

  • The degree of commitment the step-parent has shown towards the child
  • The degree of attachment that exists between the step-parent and the child
  • The step-parent ‘s reasons for applying for the order

Financial responsibilities

When it comes to a step-parent’s financial obligation to their step-child after a divorce, it is important to remember that the Child Maintenance Service cannot require a step-parent to pay maintenance for a step-child. However, if the step-child was raised as if it were part of a new family – consisting of the step-parent, biological parent, the step-child and any other children – the courts could determine that the step-parent needs to cover some costs. In such a case, they may ask the step-parent to make monthly maintenance payments, provide them with a place to live, cover certain living costs or school fees.


In most scenarios, a step-parent will not automatically be entitled to see their step-children if they become divorced from the biological parent. However, through face-to-face discussions, divorce mediation, or a Child Arrangements Order, it is possible to gain contact with a step-child. Step-parents also need to be aware that they may have certain financial obligations to their step-children after a divorce.


This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues


Vanessa McMurtrie

Partner, Family

Vanessa trained and then qualified as a solicitor in 1991 with Hart Brown working in the Cobham office's family department for a decade. She then...

Vanessa McMurtrie -Partner

Partner, Family

Vanessa McMurtrie

Vanessa trained and then qualified as a solicitor in 1991 with Hart Brown working in the Cobham office's family department for a decade. She then worked for us on a part time consultancy basis while devoting more time to her family. During this period she was instrumental in implementing Hart Brown’s family department’s case management system and later, the quality system that led to the firm’s ISO 9001 accreditation.

In 2005 Vanessa returned to client work and joined Mackrell Turner Garrett where she stayed for ten years, before re-joining Hart Brown in 2015. Vanessa knows Woking and the surrounding area well and enhances the work covered at our Woking office as part of the family team.

Vanessa has been a Resolution member since 1991, committed to resolving disputes in a non-confrontational and constructive way. She has served on the Surrey Resolution committee since 2008. She is a Resolution accredited collaboratively trained lawyer and welcomes the opportunity to help separating couples adopt this process as an alternative to the more traditional options available.

Over the years, Vanessa has gained a wealth of experience in dealing with the legal aspects of personal relationships, not just those coming to an end, but new relationships, too, where a pre-nuptial or cohabitation agreement is required. She prides herself on being approachable and understanding as she helps her clients go through the legal process.