Parenting Arrangements and Blended Families19-10-2023 | Resource | Simone Thomas
All family law cases in Australia are governed by the Family Law Act 1975, which outlines the legal framework for how issues related to children, property, and divorce should be treated. With the number of second, and in some cases third, marriages in Australia increasing, “blended families” now make up a large proportion of households.
When blended families are involved in a separation or divorce, it can lead to more complicated parenting arrangements or confusion over a parent’s rights and responsibilities. Some of the most common questions that arise involve children from previous relationships and step-children.
Parents Looking After Children From a Previous Relationship
In some marriages, one of the spouses may have a child/children from a previous relationship that lives with the couple. If that marriage subsequently breaks down, one of the most common questions that can arise is whether the non-biological parent is financially responsible for the child/children of the previous relationship.
This issue was addressed in the case of Robb and Robb (1995).
In this particular case, a wife had two daughters from a previous relationship that lived with her and her husband at the family home for approximately 10 years. After separating, the husband sought and received an adjustment to the property settlement in his favour for making financial and non-financial contributions to the wife’s daughters over the years.
The wife appealed the decision, however the Court upheld the initial findings, and found that the wife had a legal duty to maintain the children of her prior marriage, whilst the husband had no legal duty to maintain these children at any time during the marriage. The fact that he had supported the children for many years during the marriage entitled him to the adjustment.
The Rights and Responsibilities of Step-Parents
Parental responsibility refers to the legal rights, duties, and responsibilities a person has in relation to a child. Biological or adoptive parents generally have automatic parental responsibility, whereas step-parents do not automatically have parental responsibility for their stepchildren.
Even though step-parents do not have automatic parental responsibility, they can play a significant role in a child's life and the Courts in Australia will recognise the importance of maintaining meaningful relationships between children and significant adults in their lives, including step-parents. If a step-parent has a significant and ongoing relationship with a child, they may seek parenting orders to cover issues such as custody, visitation, and decision-making responsibilities. The court will always consider what is in the child's best interests, and if it is considered to be of benefit for the child to maintain a relationship with the step-parent then it is likely that orders may be made.
In the case of Cottey and Back (2020) for example, a child had been living primarily with his mother, step-father and half-brother for most of his life. His biological father came back into his life and the child then spent alternate weekends with his father, plus some time in school holidays. Tragically, the boy’s mother was killed in a car accident and after a period of about 12 months, the biological father refused to return the child to the step-father after a scheduled visit.
The step-father made an application for parenting orders seeking return of the child and asking that the previous parenting arrangements be reinstated. After initially being denied, on appeal it was found to be in the child’s best interests for him to continue living primarily with his step-father and sibling (to whom he was very close) and maintaining a relationship with his biological father through alternate weekend visits and holidays.
If you, or someone you know, would like to understand more about your rights and responsibilities when it comes to parenting issues and blended families, speak to the experienced family law team at Lamrocks Solicitors on ph: 02 4731 5688.