Step-parents: parental rights and responsibilities

Separating from a partner is an emotional and stressful time for all involved, especially if there are children involved.

For step-parents, this can be even more difficult because, even though you may love your step-child like it’s your own, legally you may not have the same rights as a biological parent.

What is a step-parent in legal terms?


The Family Law Act 1975 says that in Australia a step-parent is anyone who is (or was) married to, or in a de facto relationship with, the biological parent of a child. This includes same-sex couples.

What legal rights does a step-parent have?


There are three ways to think about a step-parent’s legal rights:

  • The first is that even during a relationship with a child’s biological parent, the step-parent doesn’t automatically get legal responsibility for the child. This means you can’t sign legal forms (such as school forms or passport applications). To have the power to do this, you need to either adopt the child or get a parenting order.
  • If your partner (the biological parent of the child) dies, parenting responsibility legally goes to the surviving parent (if there is one), even if they had little or no contact previously. However, depending on the situation, a court can decide that this isn’t in the child’s best interests and instead rule in favour of the step-parent.
  • If you separate from your partner (the biological parent of the child) then you aren’t automatically granted any privileges, unless you have adopted the child or have a parenting order. However, depending on your circumstance, you may be able to get visitation rights or custody through the family court.

What responsibilities for a child does a step-parent have?


If you’ve separated from your partner, you may wonder about child support payments. In Australia, a step-parent can only be asked to pay child support by the court. In all circumstances, the court will look to the biological parents to support a child first and foremost, but there may be cases when a court may demand a step-parent to contribute.

This may be because the biological parent is (or parents are) unable to fully support the child (or children) financially.

The court will also look at other factors such as how long you were in a relationship with your partner, what relationship you had with the child and what sort of financial arrangements were in place during that time.

What are in a child’s best interests?


When we say that the court will look at what’s in a child’s best interests, there are a few things that fall into this category. Some of the major ones include:

  • what the child wants (depending on their age)
  • the need to protect the child from all forms of abuse and violence
  • the child’s existing relationships
  • practical difficulties
  • the likely effects on the child

Each of these factors is up to the discretion of the court, but a strong relationship with your step-child can help you get the best possible outcome.

If you’re a step-parent going through a separation and want to know about your rights concerning a step-child or step-children, get in touch with East Coast Law  Family Law on 1300 735 947 or download our free ebook on separation and divorce.


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