When the parents of a child are separated, the parent who doesn't live with the child normally pays child maintenance. You can reach your own agreement on child maintenance or involve the Child Maintenance Service
Child maintenance is a separate issue from any financial settlement between divorcing partners such as spousal maintenance.
The requirement to pay child maintenance
When the parents of a child do not live together, the parent the child lives with can ask the other parent to pay child maintenance. Likewise, if the child spends some time living with each parent, the parent the child spends the most time with (the primary carer) can ask for child maintenance.
Child maintenance is normally payable for any child under the age of 16, as long as the parent continues to be the primary carer.
Child maintenance is also normally payable for children under the age of 20 who are still in full-time, secondary education (ie studying for A-levels or the equivalent rather than a higher level qualification). But the entitlement to child maintenance stops if the child stops being eligible for child benefit - for example, because the child is receiving income support.
The non-resident parent (the parent who is not the primary carer) does not have to pay child maintenance if he or she is:
- under the age of 16;
- a full-time student;
- in prison.
Child maintenance agreements
Many couples reach their own private, voluntary agreements on how much child maintenance should be paid. An agreement like this is sometimes referred to as a 'family-based' arrangement, as opposed to a 'statutory' arrangement through the Child Support Agency or the Child Maintenance Service.
There are no set rules on what you should agree. Many couples base their agreement on what the Child Maintenance Service would calculate if you involved them. An alternative approach is to look at how much income you each have and the childcare costs that need to be covered, and decide what would be fair.
A family-based arrangement can include a combination of:
- regular payments worked out as a percentage of the payer's income, or as set amounts;
- payment for particular items - for example, paying private school fees;
- one-off lump sum payments.
A family-based arrangement is not legally binding, but it can be a good idea to have a clear, written agreement. This makes it clear what has been agreed and helps ensure that both parents are committed to the agreement.
A family-based arrangement can continue as long as you both want it to; for example, the paying parent might agree to continue providing maintenance throughout a child's university education. You may also decide to review your agreement from time to time (perhaps yearly) and change it if circumstances change.
Statutory child maintenance
If you cannot agree child maintenance between yourselves, you can involve the Child Maintenance Service.
The Child Maintenance Service has a set formula for calculating payments. This is based on how much the non-resident parent earns and how many children child maintenance is being paid for. Child maintenance is reduced if the children spend part of their time living with the non-resident parent or if the non-resident parent is also supporting other children.
You can use the Child Maintenance Service calculator to work out how much the statutory child maintenance would be. If you ask the Child Maintenance Service to do this for you there is a £20 fee.
If you want to, you can ask the Child Maintenance Service to help with collecting the payments. As well as the £20 application fee, both parents will pay a percentage of each payment to the Child Maintenance Service.
The courts and child maintenance
Normally, parents either agree child maintenance between themselves or using the Child Maintenance Service. But the courts can be involved if:
- the non-resident parent earns more than £3,000 a week and the parents cannot agree child maintenance between themselves;
- the parents want a private agreement made legally binding as part of a wider divorce financial settlement, using a consent order;
- a claim is being made for financial support towards school or university fees;
- the child has special needs;
- child maintenance is being claimed from a step-parent who treated a child as a 'child of the family' (ie as if the child was his or her own child);
- the non-resident parent lives overseas.
Enforcing child maintenance
Enforcing payment when the non-resident parent fails to pay depends on how the child maintenance arrangements were set up.
If you have a private, voluntary agreement, this is not legally binding. If the voluntary agreement is not working, you can apply to the Child Maintenance Service to set up statutory maintenance.
If you already have an arrangement with the Child Maintenance Service, you can ask them to take action. The Child Maintenance Service will automatically take action if payments are being made through them.
If child maintenance was decided by a court order, you can go to court.
If the court order is more than 12 months old but not from 2003 or earlier, you also have the option of using the Child Maintenance Service instead.