Parental responsibility

What is parental responsibility?

Parental responsibility means all of the legal rights, powers, duties, responsibilities and authority a parent has in relation to a child and that child’s property. A person with parental responsibility makes decisions relating to the child’s upbringing; from education and welfare to religion and medical treatment.

Having parental responsibility for a child does not necessarily mean that person has a legal financial obligation to provide for the child from their own resources. For example, a guardian may have parental responsibility but not financial responsibility for a child, while a father who does not live with the child may not have parental responsibility but does have financial responsibility. 

Who has parental responsibility?

If a child’s parents are married when the child is born, both parents automatically have parental responsibility for the child. But the situation is different for other family situations.

Unmarried parents

If a child’s parents are not married when the child is born, only the child’s mother automatically has parental responsibility, but the father can acquire parental responsibility if he:

  • marries the child’s mother; 
  • obtains a court order giving him parental responsibility for the child; 
  • enters into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother (this needs to be registered at the Principal Registry of the Family Division of the High Court); 
  • is named in a child arrangements order (known as a CAO) as a person who the child lives with (the court will make a parental responsibility order at the same time); 
  • is named in a CAO as someone the child will spend time with and the court feels it is appropriate to make a parental responsibility order at the same time; 
  • is registered as the child’s father on the birth certificate (this only applies if the child was born on or after 1 December 2003); 
  • becomes the child’s guardian; or
  • adopts the child.

Same-sex couples

A child may have two female parents if they are born by fertility treatment given on or after 6 April 2009. In this case, the woman who carried the child is treated as the mother and acquires parental responsibility automatically. The second woman is treated in the same way as a father. She will automatically have parental responsibility for the child if she was the mother’s spouse or civil partner at the time of the fertility treatment. If she was not, she can acquire parental responsibility in the same way as any unmarried father (detailed above). 

If a child is adopted by two male parents, they will both acquire parental responsibility for the child. In the same way, if a child’s father (who already has parental responsibility for the child) enters into a same-sex relationship with a man who then adopts the child, he will acquire parental responsibility for the child.

Step-parents

A step-parent does not automatically have parental responsibility for a child. But they can acquire parental responsibility if they are the spouse or civil partner of a parent of the child who has parental responsibility. In addition, the step-parent will need either:

  • a parental responsibility agreement with the child’s parent or parents (depending on whether one or both have parental responsibility for the child); or
  • a court order giving them parental responsibility.

How many people can have parental responsibility?

There can be more than two people with parental responsibility for a child. It is possible – and fairly common – that if the child’s natural parents have split up and one or both have formed new relationships, then their new partners can be granted parental responsibility as well.

Parental responsibility is sometimes held by guardians; up to four guardians can be appointed for a child. See our page Appointing a guardian in a will for more information. 

The granting of parental responsibility to one person does not automatically deprive anyone else of parental responsibility.

When does parental responsibility end?

There are two ways in which parental responsibility for a child can end – automatically or by court order. 

Parental responsibility ends automatically when any one of the following occurs:

  • the child reaches 18;
  • the child is aged 16 or 17 years old and marries;
  • an adoption order is made – in which case parental responsibility is removed from anyone other than the adopter(s) who had it before the order was made; or
  • a child arrangements order (CAO) comes to an end if the person only had parental responsibility for the child because of the order.

Parental responsibility can also be ended by court order.

Parental responsibility agreements

You can access the court service standard form for a parental responsibility agreement on the government website.

You can access the court service form for a step-parent parental responsibility agreement on the government website.