The existence of the blended family is becoming more and more common in today’s society. According to a study conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2007, one in ten families contain stepchildren. The more common the blended family becomes in society, the more society recognises the importance of the role that step-parents play in the lives of their stepchildren. It is apparent that as the attitude of society towards blended families adapts and changes, the law must follow suit and continue to reflect the societal views and values of our time.
Today, society appreciates that a stepparent plays a vital role in their stepchild’s everyday life. In some cases, stepparents often fill the shoes of the biological parent and the stepparent becomes the only ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ that the child remembers or has ever known. But what happens when a stepparent separates from the child’s biological mother or father? Does the breakdown of the adult relationship mean that you are no longer able to spend time with your stepchild, and that your role as their parent comes to an end? The individual facts and circumstances of each case determine the legal rights of a stepparent (or the child’s right to have a relationship with that step-parent).
It is important to remember that in any family law matter that concerns children the paramount consideration of the Court is whether it is in the best interests of the child. Whilst the presumption afforded to parents that they have a right to have a meaningful relationship with their child does not extend to stepparents, stepparents may make an application to the Court if they consider they are persons who are “significant to the care, welfare or development of the child.” The Court has jurisdiction to make orders in relation to a variety of issues from long-term decisions about the child, such as who has the parental responsibility to make decisions about education, medical treatment and religion, to ssues that might include with whom the child shall live or how much time the child spends and communicates with each parent and other significant people.
It is no surprise that the simplest, and most time and cost-effective, way to decide on the parenting issues concerning the child is by agreement between both the biological parents and the stepparent. But, if the mutual consent of all parties is not obtained, then the Court will hear your application and consider the circumstances of your situation.
The Court may take into account the following considerations when deciding whether a stepparent should be granted any responsibilities concerning the child or time with the children. Essentially the Court will subjectively determine the matter based on: –
a) whether the child considers the step-parent to be their ‘mum’ or ‘dad’;
b) the duration of the step-parent’s relationship with the child and/or the child’s parent;
c) whether there are any half-siblings of the child and the potential separation of the siblings;
d) the wishes of the child depending on their age and maturity, and
e) any other considerations relevant to your individual circumstances.
In Musgrove & Panshin, the Court found that the stepparent of a 14-year-old child satisfied the Court that she was concerned with the care, welfare or development of the child and that the Court should consider the merits of the case. In Harris & Calvert, the Court found that after the breakdown of a same-sex relationship a significant period of time relative to the child’s age had passed in which the step-mother was no longer concerned with the care, welfare or development of the child and that the fractured relationship between the mothers would not foster a positive environment for the child. These cases demonstrate that depending on the circumstances of the case, the Court recognises the significance of the relationship that exists between stepparents and their stepchildren and when it is in the best interests of the child that meaningful relationships are maintained.
The Court is given the difficult task of determining the significant relationships that exist in the child’s life and then solving the practical issue of ensuring that the child spends meaningful time with each significant person in their life. They consider the needs of the child to spend time having their own social life and attending extracurricular activities as well as ensuring stability in the child’s life. The Court recognises, in some cases, the benefits for children to maintain a relationship with their stepparents after a relationship breakdown and the Court has shown a willingness to make parenting orders in favour of stepparents.
If you have played an active role in the care, welfare or development of your stepchild then, depending on your circumstances, you may be successful in bringing an application to the Court to ensure that you can maintain a relationship with your stepchild. However, if a lot of time passes, this may prejudice your application so you need to obtain advice from a family law specialist quickly.