Child support, also known as child maintenance, is the regular, ongoing financial contribution made by one parent to another in support of the everyday living costs of their child or children.
Following the breakdown of a relationship, both parents are, subject to their financial circumstances, expected to contribute to the costs of raising their child or children.
Child support payments are typically paid by the non-custodial parent to the primary caregiving parent to help fund their child’s basic needs, such as accommodation, food and clothing. It usually takes the form of a regular monetary payment to the prime carer from the other parent, however other types of contribution can be made if agreed by both parties, such as sharing care, buying necessary items or paying for trips.
Who can claim child support?
Both parents are financially responsible for their child even if they do not live with the child or the other parent. The primary carer parent, who shares residence with the child, is generally eligible for child support for as long as the child is under 16 years of age and resident in the UK. In these cases, the parent who does not handle the majority of the child’s day to day care is expected to provide child support. They are known as the ‘paying parent’.
If the child is between 16 and 20 years old and either in full-time education up to A’ level standard or equivalent, the primary carer parent may still be eligible for child support.
Where there is a split custody arrangement, there may be no paying parent or a limited provision by the parent who earns more or has less custodial responsibility.
In some cases, the paying parent will be deemed eligible for nil rate child support, and as such will not be required to make child support payments while their circumstances remain within the nil rate criteria. The nil rate could apply because the paying parent is:
- A student
- A child aged 16 or under (or 18 or under if they’re in full-time education not higher than A-level)
- A prisoner
- In receipt of an allowance for work-based training or Skillseekers training (in Scotland)
- Living in a care home or independent hospital and get help with the fees
- 16 or 17 years old and get certain benefits – or their partner gets certain benefits
Child support agreements
Safeguarding the interests of the child is of primary importance and this means having a clear child support agreement in place setting out the details of the ongoing maintenance contributions.
The child support agreement could take the form of a family-based agreement, discussed and agreed between the parents themselves.
Alternatively, if it is not possible to come to an agreement independently, the Child Maintenance Service can be used to apply for statutory child maintenance.
Family-based agreements, also known as private agreements or voluntary agreements, allow ex-partners to negotiate child support terms either independently or with the assistance of a legal adviser.
This type of agreement can be completely tailored to the individual family situation offering flexibility over the level, form and frequency of the child support. For example, support could be agreed on the basis of a percentage of the paying parent’s salary.
Other forms of child support could include:
- Larger “lump sums” at specific intervals of the child’s life
- A percentage/proportion of the paying parents’ income
- Directly paying for or contributing towards items or experiences such as clothing, food, rent, bills or activities
- A combination of all/some of these options
To assist in determining the level of contribution, parties may want to make use of the child maintenance calculator on the government website to guide negotiations and the agreement.
Family-based agreements can also be changed or adjusted in the event that circumstances change – provided both parents agree to the change.
Written confirmation of the agreement is recommended to help avoid or deal with any potential dispute in the future. Importantly however, the agreement would not be legally binding unless it has been approved by the court as a Consent Order.
Consent Orders provide legal certainty that parties must meet their responsibilities under the child support agreement or face enforcement action.
Child Support Services agreement
In reality, it is not always possible for ex-partners to discuss and agree a child support arrangement independently. Parents who are unable to reach a child support agreement between themselves should first contact the Child Maintenance Options service for initial advice on their case. Only then can you apply to the Child Maintenance Service for a statutory child maintenance case.
There are currently three different types of child maintenance scheme in operation, depending on when your case was opened:
- ‘2012 scheme’ cases
- ‘2003 scheme’ cases
- ‘1993 scheme’ cases
New cases are handled by the Child Maintenance Service under the 2012 scheme. It is a six-step process to calculate how much child support should be paid by the paying parent:
- The starting point will be the paying parent’s gross annual income, using information from HMRC records.
- From this figure, the paying parent’s additional financial liabilities such as other children or pension contributions, will be deducted. The remaining amount will be broken down into a gross weekly figure.
- The relevant child support rate is then applied to the gross weekly income.
- If the paying parent is financially responsible for any other children – this will be taken account of.
- Based on the above calculations, a weekly figure is given for child support.
- From this, further deduction is made for any ‘shared care’ ie the average number of nights a week the child spends with the paying parent.
The final child support amount is reviewed on an annual basis. Any changes in financial and family circumstances of the paying parent should be notified to the Child Maintenance Service when they arise.
There are two types of payment arrangement which can be facilitated through the Child Maintenance Service: Direct Pay services and Collect and Pay services:
Direct Pay is a scheme whereby the Child Maintenance Services identifies which parent or parents should be the paying parent and calculates the contribution they should make. The parents come to their own agreement as to when and in what way the payment or payments will take place. Should the paying parent fail to meet their responsibilities the Child Maintenance Service will initiate a Collect & Pay case and could immediately enforce their right to take funds from the paying parent.
Collect & Pay is a scheme whereby the Child Maintenance Service takes on not just establishing the child support payments due, but also collects and passes on the payments from the paying parent to the receiving parent. The Child Maintenance Services have the authority to carry out enforcement action should the paying parent fail to meet their obligations with immediate effect.
In most cases, use of the Child Maintenance Service will incur costs in the form of application fees and enforcement charges. New applications cost £20 except in cases where the parent is a victim of domestic violence or is under 19 years old. In cases where the Collect and Pay service is required, additional fees for the collection and delivery of owed payments will be charged. For collect & pay services the paying parent will be charged an additional 20% on top of their usual payment and the receiving parent will have 4% deducted from the usual amount received. Paying parents who fail to meet their maintenance payments are also subject to enforcement charges which vary in rate depending on the case.
A last resort, parents may be able to take their case to the courts. Depending on the reasons and circumstances surrounding the application to the courts, they can either seek to create an adequate child support agreement, enforce payments, penalise failure of paying parents to meet their obligations, or extend existing agreements to include responsibilities not covered by child maintenance services such as contributing to children who reside overseas or contributing additional funds to pay for a child’s disability care.
Should I take legal advice on child support?
Child support is not just a legal obligation for parents who have separated, it is also an often emotionally complex process. Legal advice can help separating parties deal with the legal complexities of meeting their obligations for child support to ensure the child’s best interests remain the primary focus.
Take legal advice from an experienced family law solicitor to understand your legal position as either the resident or non-resident parent, and to help negotiate and draft the terms to ensure any agreement meets each child’s needs and to avoid potential costly disputes in the future.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.