Although adoption is often the first route that a step-parent considers, the Parental Responsibility Order has been specifically designed to formalise the bond between step-parents and stepchildren, and can be agreed without the need to go to court.
Adoption by a step-parent
Adoption means that your family will be clearly recognised by law, with everyone able to have the same surname, and all legal links to the child's other parent and their family being severed.
Although this can have certain advantages, it can also cause confusion children. The law will no longer recognise the birth family of the child's other parent, which can mean that the child will feel cut off from them and possibly distressed by that loss.
Practically, this also means that the child loses any right over inheritance from the side of the family they have been cut off from, which could be an issue at a later stage.
When thinking about applying to adopt, you should take your stepchild's views very seriously. The law says that the child's own wishes and feelings must be taken into account.
If you decide to go ahead you must tell the local authority where you live that you intend to apply for an adoption order. This is best done in writing and before you start the court application. They will meet with you to explain what is involved and will sometimes run information sessions.
Parental Responsibility Agreement or Order - England and Wales
You will need to be married to or in a civil partnership with the child's parent. The Order will give you parental responsibility for your stepchild either by agreement or through a court order.
If your partner is the only person with parental responsibility they can make a formal agreement with you to share this. If the child's other parent also has parental responsibility, both parents need to agree to this. The agreement must be filed to make it legally binding but does not involve you going to court and does not require any reports to be written about you. Alternatively, you can apply to any family court for a Parental Responsibility Order.
Residence Order (formerly Custody Order) - Scotland
You do not need to be married or in a civil partnership to apply to the court. The Order will give you parental responsibilities and rights.
The other birth parent will retain parental rights and responsibilities, and could re-apply to have the Residence Order changed in the future.
Child Arrangements Order (formerly Residence Order) - England and Wales
You do not need to be married or in a civil partnership to apply to the court. The Order will name where and with whom the child lives.
The Order will give you, as the step-parent, parental responsibility shared with the child's parents, but not the same rights.
To find out more, read our Advice Note Stepchildren and adoption (England and Wales).