By Laura Ousby Solicitor
Unmarried couples often assume they have the same automatic rights as married couples but unfortunately, this is not the case.
For unmarried fathers, one of the most alarming consequences is that they may suddenly discover they don’t have official parental responsibility for their children, even if they have been caring for them and looking after them for several years.
We should perhaps clarify what is meant by ‘parental responsibility’ and see how it differs from simply having obligations towards your child. For example, a father has a legal responsibility to contribute towards his child’s upkeep even if he doesn’t live with them or never sees them.
However, to have a say in important matters relating to the child’s upbringing and welfare, he must have parental responsibility. He will then have the legal right to be involved in the important decisions about his child’s life such as where they should live, go to school, their religion, medical treatment and similar key issues.
Under the law, only a mother automatically has parental responsibility for her child from birth. For a father to have responsibility he will usually have to be either married to the mother when the child is born or ensure that he is named as the father on the birth certificate.
This right only applies to registrations in England and Wales after 1 December 2003. In Scotland, the date is 4 May 2006.
Most fathers are named on their children’s birth certificates but for those who are not, it can cause serious difficulties if a relationship breaks down. The mother may decide to raise your child in a way you don’t like, change their name, make it difficult for you to see them or even take them to live abroad.
It means that fathers ought to ensure that they are on the birth certificate even if the relationship is currently strong and stable. It could prevent problems if things start to go wrong later. If your relationship has already ended, you can still get parental responsibility, but it may be more difficult.
The first step is to seek a responsibility agreement with the mother and have your name registered on your child’s birth certificate. This should be relatively straightforward if the mother is co-operative but if she is not, you may need to get a parental responsibility order from a court.
The issues are similar for same-sex partners. They will both have parental responsibility if they were civil partners at the time of the fertility treatment.
For same-sex partners who aren’t civil partners, the second parent can get parental responsibility through a parental agreement or by becoming a civil partner of the other parent and making a parental responsibility agreement, or jointly registering the birth.
Married fathers do not lose their parental responsibility if they divorce, and similarly, once unmarried fathers establish their parental responsibility, they retain it even if their relationship with the mother breaks down.
Step-mothers, step-fathers and grandparents have no automatic right to parental responsibility but can acquire it in agreement with the mother or, in certain circumstances, by applying for a court order.
Unmarried fathers who don’t have parental responsibility ought to seriously consider taking the necessary steps to acquire it. The breakdown of a relationship is likely to cause stress and heartache all round, which can often result in people behaving in a way that is less reasonable and cooperative than usual.
It means that it is clearly better to deal with important legal matters like parental responsibility while your relationship is still strong rather than wait until after it has broken down.
If you would like and more information about the issues raised in this article or help with any aspect of family law then please contact Laura on 01228 516 666 or email her here.