The Ultimate Guide to Child Maintenance in the UK
Child maintenance is an important part of ensuring the well-being of children after a separation or divorce. Child maintenance can be discussed and agreed upon between the parents, through family mediation or, ultimately, enforced by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), which is a government agency.
This comprehensive guide will walk you through the ins and outs of child maintenance in the UK, including its legal implications, options for reaching agreements, and the role of the CMS. Whether you’re a parent seeking guidance or simply interested in understanding the process, we hope this guide will provide you with the essential information you need to navigate child maintenance successfully.
Understanding Child Maintenance and how it differs from Child Arrangements
What is child maintenance?
Child maintenance refers to the financial support provided by one parent to the other for the upbringing of their child. It is a separate area of law from child arrangements, which primarily focuses on where the child will stay and when. In the United Kingdom, child maintenance is typically calculated based on the non-resident parent’s income and the number of children involved. It is the one area of family law that has a set calculator for parents to use.
How is child maintenance different from child arrangements?
While child arrangements deal with matters of where the child will stay and when, child maintenance focuses solely on the financial support required for a child’s upbringing. It is important to understand that these two aspects are distinct and should be addressed separately during any legal proceedings or discussions.
The importance of financial support for the upbringing of a child
Financial support plays an important role in ensuring the well-being and development of a child. It provides for their essential needs, such as food, clothing, education, and healthcare. Child maintenance acknowledges the responsibility of both parents to contribute financially to their child’s upbringing, regardless of their relationship status.
In the United Kingdom, the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) is a government agency that can assist parents in establishing and managing child maintenance arrangements. The CMS can help calculate the appropriate amount of child maintenance based on the non-resident parent’s income and enforce payment if necessary. It will take a charge from the maintenance amount for this service.
Where does child maintenance fit in with family mediation and a consent order?
Family mediation can be utilised as a means to discuss and reach an agreement on child maintenance. While it is not mandatory, mediation can be beneficial in fostering communication and finding mutually acceptable solutions. During mediation, parents can explore various options and consider factors such as income, living arrangements, and the child’s needs to determine a fair child maintenance arrangement.
To make the child maintenance agreement legally binding, it can be included in a financial consent order. A financial consent order is a legal document approved by the court that outlines the agreed-upon terms and conditions. I can include the amount and frequency of child maintenance payments. The consent order will only have jurisdiction over the child maintenance agreement for a period of 12 months. After such time it would revert back to the CMS to enforce any breaches.
It is important to understand that the CMS can only enforce what they calculate to be the amount due under the child maintenance rules. If you have agreed to pay more than this amount, the additional payment cannot be enforced by the CMS. You should take legal advice if this is your situation but can consider spousal maintenance or global maintenance if you agree your child needs more to maintain their needs.
If you as parents are unable to reach an agreement on child maintenance, you can apply to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) for a maintenance calculation. The CMS has the authority to assess the appropriate amount of child maintenance based on the non-resident parent’s income and enforce payment if necessary.
Child maintenance payments can be adjusted if there are significant changes in circumstances, such as a change in income or the child’s living arrangements. This flexibility ensures that child maintenance remains fair and reflective of the current situation.
Calculating Child Maintenance
Child maintenance takes into account the following factors:
- Your income, including any bonuses
- Your contributions to a pension scheme
- How many children you have
- How many children live with you on your property (eg step-children)
- How often the children stay overnight with you
- If you receive any state benefits
- How many parents you will be making child maintenance payments to
The Child Maintenance Calculator takes you through these and other questions. It can be helpful to have your pay slip to hand if you receive PAYE.
What are the child maintenance rates?
There are 5 bandings for mediation, dependent on the payer’s income:
As you can see there is an upper limit of £3,000 per week. If the payer earns more than this – especially if they earn more than £650,000 per year, you should take legal advice on whether to apply to court for more payment
|Gross weekly income||Rate||Weekly amount|
|Unknown or not provided||Default||£38 for 1 child, £51 for 2 children, £64 for 3 or more children|
|£7 to £100, or if the paying parent gets benefits||Flat||£7|
|£100.01 to £199.99||Reduced||Calculated using a formula|
|£200 to £3,000||Basic||Calculated using a formula|
Considerations for multiple children
When there are multiple children involved, child maintenance calculations become more complex. In such cases, the amount of maintenance may increase to reflect the additional financial responsibility of raising more children. The specific formula used to calculate child maintenance in these situations takes into account the number of children and adjusts the amount accordingly.
Child maintenance will also take into account if you are paying for another child with a different parent, or if you have children living with you from a new relationship.
How the CMS can assist parents with child maintenance arrangements
The CMS serves as a valuable resource for parents navigating the complex world of child maintenance. It provides guidance, support, and services to ensure that children receive the financial support they need for their well-being and development.
The CMS prompts parents to reach an agreement between themselves initially. The majority of people are able to manage this and do not need to involve the CMS in any way. Using the calculator, parents agree on the amount to be paid and then assess this each year.
In cases where parents cannot agree on child maintenance, they have the option to apply to the CMS for a maintenance calculation. The CMS considers various factors, including the non-resident parent’s income and the number of children involved, to determine an appropriate amount for child maintenance. This calculation ensures a fair and reasonable contribution from the non-resident parent towards the child’s upbringing.
The CMS can also intervene when payments have been agreed upon between parents but not stuck to or where one party is being abusive or there has been domestic abuse between the parties. They make a charge for their services.
If a paying parent misses a payment from a voluntary arrangement, the CMS cannot enforce this, so it is important to act quickly if this is the case.
How the CMS can assist parents with collecting payments
If you are unable to agree on payments between yourselves, sometimes referred to as a family-based arrangement, then the CMS can agree for child maintenance to be paid by two methods:
Direct Pay – This is where you pay the money directly into the other parent’s bank account.
Collect & Pay – This is where the CMS takes the payments from the paying parent and then passes it on to the other parent. The receiving parent needs to agree to this. The CMS makes a charge for this service.
How do I apply to the CMS to start payments?
You can apply to the CMS online, which is usually the quickest method. This link takes you through the process.
How does the CMS enforce child maintenance payments?
The CMS has the authority to enforce the payments if necessary. This authority ensures that parents fulfill their financial obligations towards their children.
The CMS has a range of powers if their initial attempts to recover missed payments does not work:
- A deduction from earnings order: This is where an employer deducts payment for arrears directly from the paying parent’s salary.
- A deduction order: This is where either a lump sum or regular deductions are made from the paying parent’s bank accounts.
- Collection of Assets from a deceased paying parent’s estate.
- Apply for an enforcement order and instruct a bailiff to seize goods.
- Apply for an enforcement order to sell assets (eg a property).
- Disqualify the parent from driving.
- Disqualify the parent from holding a passport.
NB: If there is a consent order or court order in place, within the last 12 months, then there is a different way to enforce this. You should take legal advice in this situation.
Exploring Mediation as a Method for Resolving Child Maintenance
Family Mediation presents several advantages when it comes to resolving child maintenance disputes. Firstly, it promotes a child-centered approach, prioritising the best interests of the child above all else. By engaging in family mediation, parents can create a tailored child maintenance arrangement that takes into account the specific needs and circumstances of their child. This personalised approach often leads to more satisfactory outcomes compared to rigid court-imposed decisions or a fixed calculator.
It can cover for example how any school trips will be paid for or items such as school uniforms, mobile phones, or nursery fees.
Going through the budgets for a child can help with any feelings of resentment and help both parents to understand the full costs of raising a child.
The Significance of Consent Orders in Child Maintenance
What is a consent order and its role in child maintenance
Child maintenance is a separate area of law in the United Kingdom that focuses on the financial support provided by one parent to the other for the upbringing of their child. It is important to note that child maintenance is distinct from child arrangements, which primarily deal with matters related to where the child lives and spends time.
A financial consent order can include details of any child maintenance to be paid. But it is only enforceable under the consent order for 12 months. After this time, jurisdiction passes to the CMS.
Key Questions for Child Maintenance:
Do I pay child maintenance for a 50/50 arrangement?
Even when your children divide their time equally between you and your ex-partner, child maintenance payments may still apply.
In cases of shared parenting, the CMS considers the parent registered with HMRC for Child Benefit as the recipient, designating the other parent as the paying party.
Is child maintenance paid to the child or the other parent?
Some parents agree that the paying parent can transfer the money directly into the child’s bank account. This can work well, especially for older children who manage their own expenses. There is no stipulation under law on what the money can be used for. It is accepted that raising a child costs money and they need to be fed, heated and clothed. In the vast majority of cases therefore, the payments are sent to the other parent and not the child.
Can a mother pay child maintenance?
Yes, the rules on child maintenance are not affected by gender. It is the arrangements with regard to whom the children spend the majority of their time with, that impacts who makes the payments.
Can my ex refuse to pay child maintenance?
Yes, they can refuse to pay. However the CMS has substantial powers to collect any unpaid maintenance. (See above for their enforcement options).
Do I have to pay child maintenance if my ex won’t let me see the child?
Yes, the rules on child maintenance are a separate area of law to the child arrangements. If you apply to court for a child arrangements order, the court may ask you if you have been keeping up child maintenance payments and wish to know the reasons why, if you have not done so.
What happens to child maintenance if I am self-employed or have a variable income?
Being self-employed or having variable income can make the calculation for child maintenance more complex. The CMS can take an average of payment over a set period (usually a year). The CMS can work out the income from employment and can include dividends and bonuses. They can also use a P45 if you have variable income, for example, you have variable sales bonuses.
Do I need to pay child maintenance for a step-child?
The CMS will seek to locate and collect payment from the biological parent. There can be circumstances, when this is not possible, where they can collect payment from a step-parent.
At what age does child maintenance stop?
Child maintenance will always be paid until a child is 16 years old. It is then dependent on their education status.
You will continue paying for a child if they are in full-time education (more than an average of 12 hours a week supervised study or course-related work experience) and can include:
- A-levels or equivalent, for example International Baccalaureate
- T levels
- NVQs and other vocational qualifications up to level 3
- home education – if it started before your child turned 16 or after 16 if they have special needs
- traineeships in England
It is possible for a child to be in full-time education until they are 20 years old, so this would be the maximum age up to which child maintenance is paid.
Tertiary education, for example, university is not included in full-time education under child maintenance rules although many parents agree on how a child will be supported through their college or university.
A good indicator of whether child maintenance is due, is whether the receiving parent is also receiving child benefit payments.
Does having a new partner affect child maintenance?
It can do, but very much depends on the circumstances. Your ex having a new partner would not impact the amount of child maintenance you pay, irrespective of their income.
If you move in with a new partner and they have a child who lives with you, then this can reduce the amount of child maintenance you need to pay to your ex.
Do I pay child maintenance if my ex re-marries?
Yes, you will need to continue to pay child maintenance if they remarry. It is only spousal maintenance that can be affected by this event.
What happens if there is a change in my circumstances or I cannot afford to pay?
The child maintenance calculator reflects the current situation. If you lose your job or have a reduction in your income, then you can re-calculate the amount paid. Similarly, if you have an increase in your income then you will usually need to adjust the payments made. It is good practice to revisit the amount paid each year between you as parents unless there is a substantial change in your circumstances.
You may also need to re-calculate if there is a significant change to the amount of time a child stays with the paying parent.
If you cannot afford to pay child maintenance, you should, in the first instance discuss this with the other parent. Child maintenance is a legal requirement. Even if you file for bankruptcy, you will still need to pay your child maintenance liability.
In summary, child maintenance is vital for children’s well-being after a divorce or separation. While it can involve complex legal and financial aspects, its importance is clear. Child maintenance provides the necessary financial support and helps to ensure that children continue to have access to essential resources like food, housing, education, and healthcare. This stability and security help minimize the negative effects of parental separation on children. So, despite the complexities, ensuring child maintenance is not just a legal duty but a moral obligation to prioritize children’s welfare.