A guide to child maintenance

Posted: Wednesday June 9 2021

By: Rachel Roberts

A guide to child maintenance

Financial support for children is often one of the most contentious issues to resolve when parents separate. The law can be confusing, and in some cases, does not result in an outcome that reflects how the costs are split between the parents. The position can also differ if you are married or unmarried, and/or if one parent is outside of the UK.

The various options are as follows:

Voluntary agreement

In an ideal world, parents would agree between themselves what financial support is to be provided between them for their children, either directly, through solicitors or via mediation.

I will generally refer clients to the CMS calculator (see below) as a starting point, but often clients will also agree other costs, such as school trips, uniform, clothing etc.

The advantage of this is that it can help preserve the relationship between you and the other parent and there will be no CMS costs (or court fees). However, this is not legally enforceable, and if payments are reduced or stopped, there is nothing you can do to require them to pay amounts agreed.

If you are getting divorced, and agree the amount of child maintenance, this can be incorporated in to a final order dealing with your finances. However, even this, this may be time limited, as either party can apply to the CMS from the anniversary of the order onwards, so an agreement is not guaranteed in the long term.

The Child Maintenance Service (CMS)

The CMS is a government body, which assist parents who cannot agree the level of child maintenance that should be paid. It can provide assistance in various ways, as follows:

  • Work out child maintenance payment amounts (you can do this yourself using the calculator https://www.gov.uk/calculate-child-maintenance )
  • arrange for the other parent to pay child maintenance and take action if payments are not made
  • help find the other parent (they’ll need information from you and will not be able to set up a case if they cannot be found)
  • sort out disagreements about amounts
  • look at the payments if changes in parent’s circumstances are reported

The advantage of the CMS is that is far cheaper than any court process could be, although there are fees payable by both parties for collecting child maintenance, and by the paying party if they default and this requires enforcement action.

The calculation carried out is a fairly blunt instrument, which is a percentage of gross income (dependant on the number of children), with a reduction depending on the the amount of nights the children spend with the paying parent over a year. In addition, if there is a strict shared care arrangement (e.g. over a year the children spend equal time with each parent), there will be no child maintenance payable by either parent.

In some cases, where one parent earns more, or refuses to pay for clothing/activities etc, this can at times result in a very unfair outcome. On occasions, it can also lead to people making decisions around the arrangements for the children based on financial motivations, rather than the children’s welfare.

Court proceedings

There are limited options for seeking court intervention for child maintenance where you cannot agree it. These are:

  • Where the absent parent lives abroad, the court can make an order on divorce for child maintenance, but unmarried parents can also bring claims under Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989. This can also include applications for capital and housing provision – but such claims are relatively rare and often involve a parent with fairly significant wealth.
  • Where the paying parent earns more than £3,000 and the CMS has done an assessment, the court can award top up maintenance, over and above the CMS amount.

Summary

For many people, the CMS provides a clear, accessible and affordable way of accessing child maintenance but like most systems, it is not perfect and at times, the outcomes can feel unfair, both for paying and receiving parties. It is usually worth taking advice on child maintenance to ensure you fully understand the complex landscape, particularly if this is part of an overall settlement on divorce, as this may impact on other factors.

# A guide to child maintenance