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Sorting out child maintenance

Child maintenance laws help to ensure your children don’t miss out financially if you’re separated or divorced. They also offer financial support for the parent who is the primary carer, by paying towards essentials such as the child’s home, food and clothes.

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Who pays child maintenance?

The parent who is the secondary carer (i.e. who doesn’t live with the child or look after them on most days) usually pays the primary carer. This is because being the primary carer is generally more of a financial burden. Even if you don’t have frequent contact (or even any contact) with your child, as a parent you still have a legal obligation to help support them financially.

If you’re unsure which one of you should be paying (perhaps because the child’s time is divided equally between you) then you can ask a solicitor to help you work this out between you.

How is child maintenance worked out?

Unless you arrange it yourself, you must pay the amount specified by statutory child maintenance, which uses a formula set by the government. This calculation takes into account your earnings, how often you see your child, how many children you have and if you are paying for more than one child.

There’s a calculator on the government website that can work this out for you. Just to give you an idea, if you earn between £200 and £3,000 a week, you’ll be put on the basic rate. If your child lives with the other parent all the time, you’ll pay 12% of your gross weekly income for one child and 16% for two.

If you’d prefer to decide an amount yourself and you’re both happy to do so, you can use a solicitor to get this arranged properly. Even so, the calculator is a useful guide to get you started.

The formal process for arranging child maintenance

If you think you will struggle to agree child maintenance between you, you can opt for a formal process to decide for you.

The current scheme is called the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), which was set up in 2012 to replace the Child Support Agency (CSA). If you applied for child maintenance before 2012, your payments will still be managed by the CSA and therefore follow a different set of rules (known as 2003 scheme cases). The same goes for child maintenance set up before 2003 – these are known as 1993 scheme cases).

The CMS takes applications for child maintenance payments (from both payees and payers), calculates them for you, takes the payment and then passes it on to the receiving parent (N.B. this ‘Collect & Pay’ service costs 20 per cent extra, though you don’t have to use it). You can also use the service to help find the other parent to arrange child maintenance, sort out disagreements about parental identity and take action if payments aren’t made. Using this service can be really helpful if you and the other parent have a difficult relationship and don’t want to be in regular contact.

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Can I arrange child maintenance myself?

You can agree child maintenance payments yourself without involving the CMS, using what is called a family-based arrangement. You can make an informal arrangement between you, but this isn’t legally binding. Therefore it’s best to engage a solicitor to make the agreement formal.

A family-based arrangement is usually quicker to achieve. You can also both have a say in what the amount should be. It is also flexible, so you can alter it easily if it’s not quite working. It can also be more cost-effective as you won’t be using the Collect & Pay service. However, you will have to factor in the legal fees.

Setting up a family-based arrangement can be difficult if the two of you can’t come to an agreement about living costs, or if one of you is untruthful about how much you earn. This is another reason why it’s good to use a solicitor when setting one up.

How can I apply for child maintenance?

Whether you’re the payer or the payee, you can contact Child Maintenance Options to discuss how you might like to go about setting up child maintenance. You can then decide whether to opt for a family-based arrangement or use the CMS. If you want to use CMS, they’ll explain your next steps.

During the application stage, you’ll need to give the full names of both parents, your National Insurance number and your bank account details (if you want to use the Collect & Pay service).

It usually takes less than a month to set up child maintenance. After everything is arranged, the first payment is normally taken within about six weeks.

If don’t feel up to applying yourself, you can use a legal representative (a solicitor, for example) to act on your behalf. Should you want someone who isn’t legally qualified, you’ll need to give written authorisation to the CMS.

Find out more about making arrangements for children in a divorce.

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About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.