If you have separated from your partner, you may have concerns about who is now financially responsible for the every day living costs of your child (or children).
This guide will help you to understand the question of ‘What is child maintenance?’ – and the options that are available to you to ensure that your child’s financial needs are met following relationship breakdown.
What is child maintenance according to the law?
The legal framework for the assessment, collection and enforcement of child maintenance is set out under the Child Support Act 1991 (as amended).
Under that Act, each parent of a qualifying child is responsible for the financial cost of bringing up that child, irrespective of whether they are living apart. This financial responsibility is separate and distinct from parental responsibility, which refers to the right to have a say in important decisions about a child’s life, such as where they should live and where they go to school.
Who pays child maintenance?
Child maintenance refers to regular financial support that helps towards a child’s everyday living costs when parents have separated. Child maintenance can help to pay for things like clothing, food and other essentials, as well as helping to provide a home for the child.
Generally, the parent who does not have the main day-to-day care of the child, i.e. the ‘non-resident’ parent, pays child maintenance to the parent with care, unless they are deemed to come under one of the exemptions such as being in prison, being 16 years of age or having a gross weekly income of less than £7, among others.
Child maintenance is not a state benefit, rather it is a way of ensuring the non-resident parent contributes financially for the benefit of their child. The parent who receives child maintenance is known as the ‘receiving parent’, whilst the parent who pays child maintenance is known as the ‘paying parent’.
In reality however, it is not always so straightforward to determine if and who should be paying child maintenance.
What is child maintenance under a family-based arrangement?
Following separation, an informal way for parents to agree the financial support for their child is to make a family-based arrangement. In this way, you can decide between yourselves how you will both support your child – including how and when payments should be made and how much – without involving the courts, or the Child Maintenance Service.
There are several advantages to a family-based arrangement:
They can be quicker and easier to agree than the formal legal process.
They can help to maintain amicable relations between parties and encourage the non-resident parent to stay actively involved with their children’s lives.
They can be tailored to your family’s situation, for example, you can arrange for payment to be made for specific items, such as a new school uniform or a school trip.
They are flexible and easy to change if both parents agree, adapting to your child’s evolving needs, as well as both parent’s circumstances.
They are free to set up.
A family-based arrangement form is helpful as a written record of what is agreed, although these agreements are not legally binding or enforceable. This means that a parent who stops paying can’t be forced to do so. To render the agreement legally binding, you will need to make an application to the courts to approve a consent order.
What is child maintenance using a court-approved consent order?
In England and Wales, if you both agree, you could apply to a court to turn a family-based agreement into a legally binding consent order. A consent order typically takes between 1 to 3 months to be approved, and will incur a court fee.
There are several advantages to using a court-approved order:
These arrangements should be made following legal advice, providing more certainty for parties.
They are legally enforceable. If a parent does not comply with a consent order, the court can take action to enforce the arrangement, including ordering money to be taken directly from wages, or forcing the sale of property and possessions.
They can be tailored to your family’s situation, including how much maintenance is payable, as well as how and when payments will be made.
What is child maintenance using a statutory child maintenance arrangement?
If you are unable to reach an agreement informally as to child maintenance, you may be eligible to make use of the Child Maintenance Service, the government-run service to arrange child maintenance on parents’ behalf.
The previous government-run service, the Child Support Agency, is now closed to all new applications for a statutory child maintenance arrangement.
The Child Maintenance Service will decide how much maintenance should be paid. This amount is based on a standard formula. Under the Collect & Pay option, the service can collect child maintenance payments from the paying parent to pass on. Alternatively, parents can choose to arrange payments directly between themselves once child maintenance has been worked out. This is known as Direct Pay.
Who can apply?
In England and Wales, you can apply to the Child Maintenance Service if you are one of the following:
a parent with main day-to-day care of the child (the receiving parent)
a parent without main day-to-day care of the child (the paying parent)
a grandparent or other guardian of the child needing child maintenance.
The receiving parent must live in the UK, whilst the paying parent must either live in the UK, or work in the civil service, the armed forces or for a UK-based company abroad.
Typically, the child named in the application must be:
under the age of 16,
between 16 to 20 and in full-time education up to A’ Level or equivalent,
between 16 to 20, registered with certain types of government-approved training courses, and child benefit is in payment.
Before you can apply for a statutory child maintenance arrangement, you will need to contact Child Maintenance Options. This service provides information and support on all aspects of child maintenance. They will discuss with you your arrangement options.
If you decide to use the Child Maintenance Service, you will be given a reference number and advised on how to apply.
Most statutory arrangements can be put in place within about 6 weeks.
What is the cost?
There are application fees, collection fees and enforcement charges for parents using the Child Maintenance Service. This is to encourage parents to reach their own agreement through a private family-based arrangement or, if they use the service, to pay each other directly through Direct Pay.
You will not be liable for any collection fees where you make your own payment arrangements under the Direct Pay system. Under the Collect & Pay service, collection fees apply each time you make or receive a payment.
What are the advantages?
There are several advantages to using the statutory Child Maintenance Service, in particular the service will:
Try to find the other parent if you don’t know where they live.
Help to address any disagreements about parentage.
Calculate how much child maintenance should be paid on your behalf.
You can agree with the other parent when and how payments will be made (with Direct Pay).
Collect payments from the paying parent and pass these on to the receiving parent (with Collect & Pay). In the event that the Child Maintenance Service is unable to get the information needed from either parent, they can ask others, including the paying parent’s employer or their bank or building society.
Revisit the child maintenance calculation when changes in parent’s circumstances are reported.
Review cases annually to ensure that the right amount of child maintenance is being paid.
Take action when payments are missed.
How can non-payment be enforced?
In the event of non-payment, the Child Maintenance Service contact the paying parent to find out why they haven’t paid and to arrange for them to pay what they owe. Where action is taken to recover missed payments, various enforcement charges may be applied.
The service can also try to recover arrears of maintenance in the following ways:
From a paying parent’s earnings. This is called a deduction from earnings order.
From a paying parent’s benefits.
From a paying parent’s bank or building society. This is called a deduction order and can be for a one-off or even regular payments.
Apply to court for a liability order. If a liability order is granted, the case can be referred to the bailiffs who could take and sell belongings from the paying parent’s home.
Apply to court for a charging order to force the paying parent to sell property and use the money to pay off child maintenance arrears.
In the event that all other enforcement methods have failed, the Child Maintenance Service can also apply to court for the paying parent to either be disqualified from driving or sent to prison. The paying parent may also have to pay the service’s legal costs as well as their own.
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. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.