Child maintenance guide for single parents
Child maintenance is regular, reliable financial support that helps towards a child's everyday living costs.
The parent who doesn't have main day-to-day care of the child pays child maintenance to the parent who does. In some cases, this person can be a grandparent or guardian.
It doesn't only have to be about exchanging money. You can also arrange to make 'payments in kind' - for example, by paying for school uniforms or day trips.
Why is child maintenance important?
Child maintenance can make a real difference to children as it can help pay for things like clothing, food and other essentials. It can also help to keep both parents involved with their children's lives.
Paying maintenance for your child is also a legal responsibility.
How is child maintenance arranged?
More than half a million families choose to make an arrangement between themselves, by agreeing with the other parent about the amount and type of child maintenance that one will pay to the other. This is known as a family-based arrangement.
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If you can't agree, or if the arrangement isn't working, either you or your partner can apply for help from the government-run Child Maintenance Service (CMS), which as of 2014 is replacing the Child Support Agency. In some cases, you can also use the courts to arrange child maintenance.
Where can I get child maintenance information and support?
The main source of information is Child Maintenance Options (CMO). It gives free information and support and is there to help both parents, as well as guardians, relatives and anyone concerned about a child or separated family.
You can contact CMO on 0800 988 0988 (free from a landline) or visit www.cmoptions.org.
How can I arrange child maintenance?
The quickest and easiest way to arrange child maintenance is for you and the other parent to agree things between yourselves.
Benefits of a family-based arrangement:
- It's quick and easy to set up, so payments can start being exchanged straight away
- If you can keep lawyers and the CMS out of it, it's a lot easier to keep things friendly - when there's less conflict, it's the children who benefit
- People tend to respect their own promises - when both parents agree things together, payments are more likely to be made in full and on time
- A family-based arrangement is totally private - no one else needs to get involved in your affairs
- It's flexible, because you can make special arrangements or change it at any time, quickly and easily
- You can also be flexible about how, what and when payments should be made.
- You can make a family-based arrangement even if your ex-partner lives or moves abroad - you can't always do this with other arrangement options
- It's not legally binding - if it doesn't work out you can change things, including asking the CMS to set up an arrangement
This family-based arrangement form can help you to keep a record of what you have agreed with the other parent.
How much are child maintenance payments?
CMO's Child Maintenance Calculator can give you an indication of how much payments could be. You can use this amount as a starting point for your arrangement. You can also keep a record of the payments or exchanges that you make or receive, in case you need it in future.
What if I can't make a family-based arrangement?
A family-based arrangement isn't for everyone. If you don't know where the other parent is, you don't have a good relationship, or domestic abuse or violence is involved, you might need to look at the other options, notably apply for a statutory child maintenance case managed by the CMS.
Either parent, once having contacted CMO, can apply to the CMS, which can:
- Work out how much child maintenance payments should be and when they should be made
- Trace the other parent (if you don't know where they are)
- Collect and enforce payments (this is known as a Collect and Pay arrangment)
- Allow both parents to avoid contact
However, a CMS arrangement can sometimes be inflexible and it takes longer to make changes. For example, if your circumstances change, it can take a while to work out if your child maintenance payments should change.
The CMS also offers a service called Direct Pay, where it works out how much and how often your payments should be, but then allows you to set up and organise payments directly with the other parent.
With Maintenance Direct, parents can agree between themselves how and when money is paid, and can vary child maintenance amounts if circumstances change.
The CMS is still available to give advice and guidance if any changes mean a new calculation needs to be made, or step in if the non-resident parent doesn't make the payments that are due. It's a good idea to keep a record of the payments you make or receive, as the CMS won't have access to that information unless you give it to them.
Introducing fees and charges
The government plans to introduce fees and charges in 2014 for parents who use the CMS.
These plans are not yet law but under current proposals there will be:
- A £20 fee for all new applications except in cases where domestic abuse is involved - more information about this can be found here
- A 20% collection fee for paying parents using the Collect and Pay service, on top of their usual amount
- A 4% collection fee for receiving parents using the Collect and Pay service, deducted from their usual amount
- A range of enforcement charges for paying parents who fail to pay their child maintenance in full and on time
Closing existing CSA cases
The Child Support Agency no longer accepts new applications and will begin to end child maintenance arrangements on its 1993 and 2003 schemes in 2014.
If you are affected, you will get a letter up to six months beforehand, giving you a chance to put a new arrangement in place. Parents will be encouraged to think about making their own family-based arrangement, while those who can't will be able to apply to the Child Maintenance Service.
It is expected to take about three years to contact every parent and end all CSA arrangements.
What about going through the courts?
The other option for arranging child maintenance and enforcing payments comes through the courts. This can differ depending on where in the country you and the other parent live. Usually, it's only a good option if you are going to court for other reasons (like arranging a divorce or dividing property or other assets), as courts rarely grant orders otherwise.
Which children are covered by child maintenance?
Child Support law governs the level of child maintenance that should be paid by a parent who doesn't have day-to-day care to the parent who does.
For child maintenance purposes, a child is defined as anyone under 16 or someone between 16 and 19 who is:
- Not, nor has ever been, married or in a civil partnership
- In full-time, non-advanced education
There are certain exceptions to this - to find out more, call Child Maintenance Options on 0800 988 0988 or visit www.cmoptions.org.
How does the Child Maintenance Service calculate child maintenance?
The CMS works out child maintenance amounts using rules set out by Child Support law. This amount is based on:
- The net income of the non-resident parent
- The number of children the non-resident parent lives apart from
- The number of children who live with the non-resident parent
- How much shared care the non-resident parent provides
What child maintenance payments can a court order?
The court (or the sheriff in Scotland) still has powers to make orders for:
- Payment of school fees
- Child maintenance for stepchildren or disabled children
- Child maintenance for those who are in further education and certain other specific situations
It can also order that a particular sum of money must be paid for children, or for property to be made available for them, in certain circumstances.
Child Maintenance Options can give you more information on court orders if you need it, or you can visit Legal Aid Finder.
What if there is disagreement about paternity?
If you are named in a child maintenance application and the child hasn't been legally adopted by someone else, the CMS can presume that you are the father if you:
- Were married to the mother at any time between the child's date of conception and date of birth
- Are named as the father on the child's birth certificate
- Have legally adopted the child
- Have been named in a court order as the parent
- Can legally be presumed to be a parent of a child born as a result of fertility treatment
If there's a dispute about who the father is, the CMS can use a DNA test. If you refuse to take a DNA test they can also presume that you are the father.
Watch four people talk about using Child Maintenance Options
- Chat to other parents about child maintenance
This content is supplied by Child Maintenance Options. It is not a substitute for independent professional advice and you should get professional advice relevant to your particular circumstances.