Both parents have a legal responsibility for the financial maintenance of their child. Child maintenance is a sum of money that is paid, usually by one parent to the other, following separation or divorce.
It is often known as “child support” and is intended to contribute to the child’s living costs. It is usually paid monthly but other payment schedules are possible.
In an ideal scenario, child maintenance is something that a divorcing couple with dependent children sort out between themselves without the need to involve divorce solicitors or the courts.
Many couples manage this, although some do not. Almost all couples begin the process uncertain as to what is meant by child maintenance, who should pay it or how much should be paid.
There may be an assumption that the courts will resolve maintenance issues as part of the divorce process. However, the family courts that grant divorces do not automatically make arrangements for any children of the divorcing couple. This means that they will usually only address matters such as residency, contact and financial maintenance if they are specifically asked to do so. Moreover, for a number of reasons, it is prudent for most divorcing couples to question whether asking the court to address child maintenance is the wisest course of action.
First, court-ordered arrangements are expensive to procure. Although it is possible to appear as a litigant in person, most individuals will seek the advice of family law solicitors. Depending upon the state of the relationship between a divorcing couple, when it comes to matters such as child maintenance, it sometimes makes more financial sense to attempt to reach an agreement between themselves.
Second, if the parties can reach an agreement between themselves, there is evidence to suggest that they are more likely to remain on reasonable terms, which will assist their parenting and the emotional well-being of their children.
Third, reaching an agreement without court involvement also means that if the parents wish to alter the maintenance arrangement in the future, they can do so. A maintenance order imposed by a court may only be altered by returning to court.
Child Maintenance: Where the Parents Agree between Themselves
Assuming a couple wish to reach an agreement between themselves, it can help to know where to begin. Our dedicated child maintenance calculator can be useful in ensuring that all possible expenses are factored in.
Food and clothes are obvious, but it is also important to remember utility bills, transport costs and extra-curricular activities. As a general rule, a child should have the same standard of living with both their parents. In order to achieve this, the parents should consider one parent paying the other:
- a proportion of their income;
- an agreed amount; or
- a sum to cover particular expenses, such as school uniform or clubs and activities.
In some circumstances, the parents may agree that neither parent pays the other anything. This is most likely to occur where a child spends 50% of their time with one parent and 50% with the other, and in cases in which both parents have a similar income.
Whatever agreement is reached, it is sensible to note it in writing in case of any future disagreements.
Child Maintenance: Using a Mediator
If parents are unable to reach an agreement between themselves, they may wish to enlist an independent mediator. Divorce lawyers can often suggest suitable individuals, and some solicitors are also trained mediators.
Child maintenance agreed during mediation is often referred to as a family-based arrangement. Unlike court-ordered maintenance, a family-based arrangement is not binding on the parties.
However, if one party breaches the agreement, the other may be able to rely on a government scheme, run by the Child Maintenance Service, for an enforceable agreement, which will compel the defaulting parent to pay.
Child Maintenance: Using the Child Maintenance Service
This service has three schemes:
- The 2012 scheme, which is open to all new applicants who cannot make a family-based arrangement. Applicants must pay a fee for access to the service, and a collection fee is levied on the paying parent.
- The 1993 scheme, for cases opened before 3 March 2003.
- The 2003 scheme, for cases opened on or after 3 March 2003.
Child Maintenance: Asking the Court to Make an Order
In certain circumstances, this may need to be the first course of action. This might include situations where:
- there is a history of domestic violence;
- one party is attempting to hide their assets;
- one party lives outside the UK;
- the resident parent has extra expenses that the Child Maintenance Service does not take into account, such as to cover private school fees or costs associated with a child’s medical needs;
- one party has a very high income and the other party wants the maintenance calculation to reflect this.
A court order is binding, which means that failure to pay may result in an attachment of earnings order to deduct the amount at source or a charging order on a property. As a last resort, the non-payer may be sent to prison for up to six weeks. It is possible to find specialist lawyers, particularly specialist men’s divorce lawyers, with specific expertise in dealing with these sorts of case.