Disputes about parenthood and parental responsibility

child jumpingSome disputes relating to children concern the legal status of the adults involved in their life.  Whether someone is a legal parent, or has parental responsibility, can have an important impact on their rights and responsibilities in respect of their child, as well as being emotionally significant.

Disputes about legal parenthood

Whether someone is a child's legal parent affects:

  • whether they can be registered on their child's birth certificate
  • whether they are financially responsible
  • whether the child will inherit from them
  • whether they can pass on British nationality
  • their rights to be involved in court applications concerning their child.

Disputes about parenthood might involve a question of fact (for example who is the biological father of a naturally conceived child) or a legal question (for example whether someone is the legal parent of a child conceived through assisted reproduction - find out more about legal parenthood following surrogacy, and legal parenthood following donor conception).

Anyone with a sufficient interest can apply to the family court, and the family court will make a declaration of parentage (or non-parentage) confirming whether they are the child's legal parent. The family court can also be asked to decide whether someone is a legal parent as part of other proceedings (for example if there is a dispute about who the child should live with or spend time with).

Disputes about parental responsibility

Parental responsibility is not the same as legal parenthood.  Having parental responsibility enables an adult to to make decisions about the care of a child under the age of 18, and gives them a right to involved in key decisions, including medical and educational decisions, and religious upbringing.  It is possible for someone who is not a legal parent to have parental responsibility for a child; it is also possible for a legal parent not to have parental responsibility.

If parents (or those involved in a child's care) can agree that someone should have parental responsibility, there are various ways to achieve this.  Find out more about acquiring parental responsibility by consent.

If there is a dispute, an application can be made to the family court, which will decide what is in the child's best interests.  The law on parental responsibility is complex, and a lot depends on the particular circumstances. Someone who is either a legal parent or the spouse/civil partner of a legal parent can apply to the family court for a parental responsibility order, but everyone else will need to ask for parental responsibility to be given as part of a child arrangements order (it will automatically be part of an order that a child 'lives with' that person; and can be given by discretion if the person is given contact rights). Depending on the circumstances, they may also need the court's permission to make an application.

For separated parents, the court has traditionally applied a light test, awarding parental responsibility to parents who show attachment, commitment and motivation. In cases involving modern families, the decision is often more complex, and the court may take other issues into account.  Find out more about known donor and co-parenting disputes, and disputes between same-sex parents.

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