Modern families, as we all know, come in all shapes and sizes. And the different types of family makeup can raise issues that can be of considerable importance in a family law context.
One such family type is what is commonly referred to as the ‘blended family’.
But what exactly is a blended family, and what issues can it raise?
A blended family is, as the name suggests, a blend of two families, a sort of mix of two other common family types: the traditional family (two parents and the child or children they have had together) and a single-parent family, which consists of one parent and their child or children.
Obviously, a single parent may enter a new relationship, and form a mixed family with their new partner. We then have what is commonly known as a stepfamily, with the new partner being a stepparent to the child or children.
But what if the parties then have children of their own? Then we have a blended family: a combination of a traditional family and a stepfamily.
To use the Cambridge Dictionary definition, a blended family is “a family that consists of two adults, the child or children that they have had together, and one or more children that they have had with previous partners”.
Note that the definition does not require that the two adults be married to one another – they just have to be partners.
So what are the issues that can be raised by blended families?
The issues of course arise from the fact that the step-children have ‘another parent’, with whom they don’t live (at least not all of the time): their natural mother or father.
Obviously, those children should normally spend time with both of their natural parents.
But then that means that they will not be spending that time with their half-brothers or sisters.
And this can be where the issues can arise: they may become conflicted between spending time with their blended family and spending time with their other (natural) parent.
This can be particularly hard for them if they are especially close to their step-siblings, or if the step-siblings are doing something of particular interest, that they don’t want to miss out on.
And remember, the ascertainable wishes of the children should be considered when sorting out arrangements for children – this can be especially relevant with older children.
Ideally, such issues should be dealt with by the natural parents with care and sympathy, and resolved by agreement if possible. Only after every reasonable effort has been made to resolve such issues by agreement (including the possible use of mediation, if appropriate) should the family court be asked to decide the matter.
If a blended family considers itself to be a unit then the parents may feel it appropriate to take steps to fully assimilate the step-children into the family.
This raises at least two possibilities: changing the step-children’s surname to match any new family name (where they still have the surname of the absent parent), and the more radical possibility of the step-parent adopting the step-children, thereby cutting the other natural parent out of their lives.
Either course of action will involve court proceedings (save in the unlikely event that the absent parent agrees to a change of name), and the court will, as always, be guided by whatever it considers to be best for the welfare of the children.
Generally speaking, however, the courts nowadays do not consider it as important as it once was that all children in a family share the same surname, and the increase in blended families is part of the reason for that (in 2016 the Court of Appeal commented that “the increase in blended families means that it is … no longer the universal norm for a family living together all to share the same surname”).
As to adoption, that is obviously a very serious step, and is only likely to be considered to be in the child’s best interests if their relationship with the absent parent has completely broken down.
Ian Walker Family Law & Mediation Solicitors are award-winning family solicitors and are recognised as one of the leading family law firms in the South West of England with services covering family law & mediation, divorce, child law, and arbitration. For expert advice, please contact the team.