What are parental rights and responsibilities?

The rights and responsibilities of a parent is set out in the Children’s Act 38 of 2008 (the “Children’s Act”) and can be defined as a complex set of rights, duties and responsibilities which have to be performed in the best interest of the child. These rights and responsibilities include the following elements namely: caring of the child, maintaining contact with the child, to act as a guardian over the child and to contribute to the maintenance of the child.

Both parents of a child have equal rights and responsibilities, but when they are not living together, specific rights and responsibilities may be given to one parent, either by court order or agreement between the parents.

Biological mothers

The biological mother, whether she is married or not, has full parental responsibilities and rights in respect of her child. She attains those rights solely on the fact that she has given birth to the child.

 Married biological fathers

 The biological father has full parental responsibilities and rights in respect of the child if:

    1. he was married to the child’s mother at the time of the child’s conception and birth;
    2. he is married to the child’s mother; or
    3. they are or were married at any time after the birth.

 Unmarried biological fathers

Despite the increased recognition of the beneficial role that fathers can play in the lives of their children, the Children’s Act still does not confer automatic, inherent parental rights on biological fathers in the same way it does for mothers. According to the Act, an unmarried biological father will have automatic parental rights and responsibilities only if:

    1. at the time of the child’s birth, he was living in a life partnership with the mother, i.e. they were living in a de facto husband and wife relationship and chose not to get married;
    2. regardless of whether he was living with the mother or not, he consents to be identified as the father of the child or applies for an amendment to be effected on the birth certificate that he be registered as the biological father of the child in terms of the Births and Deaths Registration Act, or pays damages in terms of customary law; and
    3. he contributes or has attempted to contribute in good faith to the upbringing of the child within a reasonable period, and has paid or attempted to pay maintenance.

If there is a dispute between the biological parents over any of the above criteria, then the question of whether the father has parental responsibilities and rights must be referred for mediation to a family advocate, social worker or other suitably qualified person. Mediation is the process whereby the participants, together with the assistance of a neutral party, systematically isolate disputed issues in order to develop options, consider alternatives and reach a consensual settlement that will accommodate their needs.

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This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)