What is parental responsibility?

Did you know that as a dad you don’t automatically have parental responsibility? While generally this only comes into play if you don’t live with your children, it’s an area of the law that it’s worth understanding so that you know your rights.

Tattooed young dad holding a baby


All mothers automatically have parental responsibility from birth, yet dads  only qualify under certain circumstances. Usually this means that you are married to the child’s mother at the time of birth, which gives you both parental responsibility and it’s retained even if you get divorced.

If you’re not married, but are named on the birth certificate (since 1 December 2003) you will also hold parental responsibility.

What does parental responsibility mean?

So some dads have it, others might not, but what does parental responsibility actually mean?

Parental responsibility describes the legal rights and authority that a parent has for a child. It means you are entitled to make decisions about your child’s care and their life. Any important decisions should be made in joint agreement by those holding parental responsibility.

Typical examples of these decisions might be where a child lives, where they go to school, the religion they practice or medical treatment that might be needed. It might also be to approve a holiday overseas.

Financial responsibility and day to day decisions

Interestingly, any parent has a duty to contribute financially to their child’s upbringing, whether they have parental responsibility or not. Meanwhile, parental agreement is not considered legally necessary when it comes to day-to-day parenting decisions like bedtimes, homework or domestic rules. There’s also no legal requirement for separated parents to agree about when a child is introduced to a new partner.

How can I get parental responsibility?

If you don’t already have parental responsibility through marriage or the birth certificate, you can gain it via a parental responsibility agreement. This approach is open to biological fathers and step parents who are married or in a civil partnership with the child’s parent. It is also available to other carers, should the child live with them.

The process requires you to complete a parental responsibility form, which is available online here, and have it witnessed by a local office of the family court or the family court itself.

What if the other parent won’t sign the agreement?

If parents can’t reach agreement about parental responsibility, you can apply to the court for an order. The court will decide if it’s in the best interests of your child for the parent or step-parent to have parental responsibility. The welfare of your child must be the court’s top priority.

In most cases the father will be granted parental responsibility, unless there is a very good reason not to.

Where to find further information

Gingerbread is a charity dedicated to supporting single parent families and is a good source of information.  The government website provides links to the relevant forms and information.

You can also find other useful information here on shared parental leave and equal parenting.

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