An introduction to child maintenance

As a parent, when you separate from your partner your primary concern will undoubtedly be for your children. Aside from supporting them emotionally during this time of transition, you may be worried about how you will be able to afford to care for them if they live with you, and whether the other parent has a financial obligation to contribute.

The law on child maintenance is complex and requires expert consideration to apply it in any particular scenario. In this article Rebecca Massam, family law expert at Warners Solicitors in Kent, explains the key principles behind child maintenance and what you can do if you can no longer afford to pay maintenance – or if the paying parent stops paying.

What is ‘child maintenance’?

Child maintenance is money paid by one parent to the other parent for the benefit of a child.  This can be used towards things specifically for the child like clothes and activity fees, but it is also intended to help with the additional living cost associated with having a child reside with you, such as increased utilities and food bills.

As a general rule, child maintenance continues until the youngest child reaches 18 years of age, or whilst they remain in full time secondary education.

What are your options?

Often, parents are able to agree on an acceptable level of child maintenance and, in fact, are encouraged to do so. If you can do this privately and amicably, it means you can implement your plan quickly, and be flexible should circumstances change. This is undoubtedly best for the children and for you. If you know how much the paying parent earns, then the calculator on the government website can be a helpful starting point.

If you cannot decide on a fair level of child maintenance, the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’) can help you to decide how much must be paid.

Although it is possible to ask the court to make an order for child maintenance, this is usually only appropriate where one parent lives abroad or has a very high income.

How much should be paid?

The amount of child maintenance that should be payed depends on a number of factors, including: the number of children; the income of the paying parent; what pension contributions are being made; how much the children stay with each parent; and whether the paying parent is already financially supporting any other children.

The government sets out a flat weekly rate payable where the parent’s income is unknown: £38 for one child, £51 for two children and £61 for three or more children. If your income is less than £7 a week you do not have to pay any child maintenance.

The CMS has the power to contact HMRC to determine the correct amount, and ultimately can take payments directly from the income paid in some circumstances.

When payments become overdue

It is a fact of life that our circumstances change from time to time. If you have a family-based arrangement in place and a change in circumstances occurs which means you need to reopen the agreement, try to come to a new arrangement and put it in writing – taking specialist advice if you are unsure about what your rights or obligations are.

However, what happens if the payments simply stop? If you are unable to discuss it and come to an agreement together, consider contacting the CMS so that enforcement action can be taken. This can cost both of you a small amount in enforcement fees but, at the same time, the CMS has various powers at its disposal including deducting wages at source.

If you are the paying parent and have stopped paying maintenance, then you risk enforcement action. However, if you are unable to continue payments because of a change in circumstances, you must communicate with the other parent and try to renegotiate your agreement to avoid a dispute.

What happens if my ex dies?

If the paying parent dies while the children are under 18, then the other parent may be able to seek assistance from their estate after their death.

Separately, your children may be beneficiaries of the estate. However, if they are not, or they are not sufficiently provided for, they may well be able to make a claim as a ‘dependent’ against the estate for reasonable financial provision. If you think this is something that you may need further assistance with, then we can discuss this with you.

What should I do?

You will want to agree or resolve your child maintenance issues as quickly for the sake of your children. Our specialist divorce and child maintenance solicitors are available to give you advice on your rights and what steps you can take.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.

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