All parents are not equal! Unmarried fathers beware.

Many assume that all parents are treated the same whether or not they are married to each other. This is, however, not the position and is the cause of much uncertainty and concern.

Parental Responsibility (PR)

These are the words used to describe the responsibilities and rights that go with being a parent. If a parent has PR for a child they have a legal duty and responsibility to care for and protect that child.

If a father’s name is on the birth certificate and child’s birth was registered on or after 1st December 2003 PR is automatic. If not, then a father will either have to:-

i)              Marry the child’s mother;

ii)            Make a PR agreement with the child’s mother, or

iii)          Apply to the court for an order if the mother does not respond or agree.

If the father is a step-parent, he/she could only get PR by applying to the court for a Residence Order. This is sometimes important if there is uncertainty perhaps over the natural parent’s health.

A parent with PR has a legal right to make decisions about that child’s future and these rights are recognised by hospitals, local authorities and schools. Decisions such as which school a child will go to, the religion he or she will be brought up in, and even a surname.

Most importantly, parental responsibility is necessary if consent to medical treatment is to be given. There is also a potentially crucial decision as to applying for a passport.

If disputes over any of the above issues occur then decisions need to be promptly made. They are ideally suited for mediation. Courts take too long, are too expensive and generally do not enhance the relationship between the parents.

Mediation assists in many cases where contact to a step-child is an issue after separation. A father, as a cohabitee, may have brought up that child and shared that child’s life for a number of years yet, in theory, would have no responsibility. He would need to get parental responsibility for this child. This could be made by agreement without the need for a court order.

Mediation is flexible enough to assist with any issues that relate to children. Communication is one of the first problems when couples separate and mediation brings them together and puts focus upon the needs of the children in a safe environment where both can concentrate on the child’s welfare rather than replay the difficulties and issues that have broken their own relationship.

Protecting a child if a father dies

If a father dies without making a Will the law defines who inherits the father’s assets. If he is an unmarried parent everything he leaves will be held in trust for the children in equal shares until they reach the age of 18 years of age.

His partner, perhaps the mother of his child, won’t get anything automatically. It is, therefore, essential to make a Will.

It is even more worrying if a father dies living with a partner but is still married technically to someone else no matter how long they have been separated but are not divorced. The wife will get any joint assets still held together and the first £250,000 of any other remaining assets. Beyond that, any further assets are effectively divided in two; with one half being used to provide an income for the wife and the other half being held on trust for the children until 18.

The father’s current partner and any step-children certainly won’t get anything without contesting the estate. Any provision for the children is going to be limited.  It is very, very important therefore that a Will is made.

The two messages are, therefore:-

  1. Go to mediation;
  1. Make certain you have made a Will.
Richard Randall
Richard is the Senior Partner at Leonard Gray Solicitors and has immense experience in family law. He works with sensitivity and humanity and provides support to his clients at what can be a most devastating period of their lives, to help them attain appropriate and just settlements from which they can move forward.

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