When families break up, communication can break down, which is why there are laws in place to ensure that any children continued to be supported by the parent who doesn’t live with them. If things get difficult, legal action can sometimes become necessary.
Child maintenance is for children who are either:
- Under 16
- Under 20 and in full-time education (but not higher than A-Level or equivalent)
In an ideal world, there would be no need for the law to intervene in child maintenance. If you’ve come to an arrangement with your ex-partner, that’s great.
You’ll need to agree between yourselves the amounts of payments, how they are made and how often, who will pay for any extra things that the children need, and if it suits you, you can agree to the paying parent covering specific things such as education costs, or clothes, rather than a set amount of cash.
If you opt to have a set amount of money, check a child maintenance calculator for the amounts that you can ask for. Be aware that a family-based agreement isn’t legally enforceable, though.
If the paying parent doesn’t comply with the agreement, you can apply to the Child Support Agency for a maintenance order, but only after 12 months has passed from the date of the original agreement.
You can opt to make the informal maintenance agreement binding by applying to a court for a consent order. For impartial advice, you can also contact Child Maintenance Options.
Divorce and maintenance
If you’re splitting up, and you’re either about to lodge your divorce petition or you’ve already started divorce proceedings, you can ask the court to make a consent order for maintenance as part of the divorce. This usually costs extra money, unless you’ve been given assistance with court fees.
When you file a divorce petition with the court, if there are children involved, you’ll have to file a statement of arrangements that details all the arrangements made for the care of the children, including contact and any financial arrangements.
You can ask the court to approve the arrangements you’ve made, by asking a solicitor to draw up the order. This is appropriate if you’ve agreed the amounts, with or without legal advice about child maintenance, and simply want the protection of the court order to make sure it’s paid as agreed. The court fee for this is £45, although a solicitor may charge you for drafting it too.
You’ll both have to sign it, and send in details of your finances and an application to the court.
If circumstances change, the paying parent should not just stop paying – they should apply to the court to have the order varied. They can do this by lodging another consent order, and if you want to contest the changes, it will usually involve a court hearing. If this happens, seek legal advice.
If your partner is refusing to pay agreed child maintenance, you’ll need to take it up with the Child Support Agency, or Child Maintenance Service, who may in turn involve the courts. There are certain things that a court has powers to order the absent parent to pay:
- School fees
- Maintenance for step children or disabled children
- Maintenance for children still in further education
- Maintenance for children whose paying parent is abroad
Courts can also order that capital sums are paid, or make orders regarding property. These are all separate circumstances and dealt with differently to a standard child maintenance agreement.
Statutory Child Maintenance Services
At the moment, it’s still possible for either parent to apply to the CSA for an assessment of an existing maintenance order, or to set up a new agreement. If you’re a carer, guardian or a grandparent/family member who looks after a child entitled to maintenance, you can also apply.
The CSA may still deal with the case or pass it to the Child Maintenance Service.
You will have to provide specific information along with your application, and once the case has been set up, if there are no problems, you should receive a response within 12 weeks, although it can take longer if there are problems tracking down the paying parent.
Once the order has been made, payments should start within around six weeks.
If payments aren’t being made, you can contact the Child Maintenance Service and ask them to take action. They can chase the money in three ways:
- Court Action
- Taking the money directly from wages or benefits
- Taking the money directly from a bank or building society account
If they opt for court proceedings to recover the owed maintenance, they can use several methods, including bailiffs, forced sale of property, and even prison.
Changes from 2013
The Child Support Agency (CSA) is being replaced with a new service called the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) in 2013.
Although it’s currently being trialled, the Child Maintenance Service scheme will eventually involve a fee of £20 when it comes fully into force, and most parents will be expected to use its ‘Direct Pay’ service. If there are problems, the Child Maintenance Service can move the case to the ‘Collections’ service and take the payments for you.