Written by Gingerbread

Charity at Gingerbread

Gingerbread is a national charity that provides expert advice, practical support and campaigns for single mums and dads.

Child maintenance is when a parent who does not live with their children pays money towards their upkeep, including food, clothes, and other essentials. It helps to provide a stable home and is a way of making sure that children are brought up in the best circumstances possible.

Legally a parent must pay maintenance even if they do not see their child. Equally a parent cannot be denied contact for not paying child maintenance.

Child maintenance usually works by the parent who does not live with the children most of the time paying money to the parent who does. It can also involve that parent spending money directly on their children as part of a family -based child maintenance arrangement.

Child maintenance has nothing to do with contact between parent and child. Legally a parent must pay maintenance even if they do not see their child. Equally a parent cannot be denied contact for not paying child maintenance. 

Who has to pay child maintenance?

Child maintenance is a legal requirement, as all parents have a responsibility to look after their children financially. Any parent who has their child living with them for less than half of the time is expected to pay child maintenance. The amount of child maintenance that has to be paid will depend on how much time each parent has the children staying with them.

Child maintenance has to be paid for:

  • all children under 16;
  • children under 20 who are in full-time non-advanced education (A-levels or equivalent);
  • children aged 16 or 17 who are not in full-time education but are registered to work or train with a careers service.

If you are not sure if your situation requires child maintenance you can always contact Gingerbread or Child Maintenance Options for advice (see below).

How to arrange child maintenance

There are three main ways of organising child maintenance:

  • Family-based arrangement;
  • Consent order;
  • Child Maintenance Service.

If you and the other parent can reach an agreement then you can make either a family-based arrangement or a consent order. If you can’t agree with the other parent then you can pay child maintenance through the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

Making a family-based arrangement

A family-based arrangement is simply when parents agree among themselves how child maintenance is going to be paid. You can make any arrangement you like for child maintenance, as long as both parents agree. This could be regular payments of money, lump sums for certain items, or payments in kind such as buying school uniforms or nappies. It could be a combination of these things.

The Child Maintenance Options service can provide a form for you to write down what you agree.

Family-based arrangements are the simplest option for child maintenance, as you can agree on whatever amount of child maintenance you want, in whatever form you want. Unlike other options they are free. It also helps to have an agreement in place to avoid potential arguments later on.

However, these arrangements are not legally binding – they’re simply an agreement between both parents. If one parent changes their mind or stops paying there is no way to legally enforce it. If the arrangement does break down, you can still use the Child Maintenance Service.

Consent orders

If you reach an agreement with your child’s other parent another option is to apply to the court to make the agreement legally binding. This is called a consent order. Both parents must agree to the terms of the order. A consent order is usually used when parents are divorcing and sorting out their finances, so it might include other agreements, such as who is going to pay the mortgage.

Consent orders have the advantage that they can be enforced through the court if the child maintenance isn’t paid. However, this option is more costly as there are court fees for making and enforcing the order. You should also get independent legal advice which you would have to pay for. You can’t apply to the Child Maintenance Service for one year after a consent order is made, so you should be confident that it is going to last for the foreseeable future.

Using the Child Maintenance Service (CMS)

If you can’t reach an agreement with your child’s other parent you can use the CMS to arrange child maintenance for you. You can also do this if you don’t have contact with them.

Before you can apply to the CMS you must call Child Maintenance Options to discuss if you could make a family-based arrangement instead. If you have tried this and failed, or if such an arrangement wouldn’t be possible, then Child Maintenance Options will give you a reference number that you can use to make your CMS application. There is a £20 application fee.

The CMS will work out the amount amount of child maintenance which they believe should be paid and notify both parents. They can take action against the paying parent if they don’t pay the required amount. However, you can’t control when and how the CMS takes enforcement action if the other parent doesn’t pay.

Using the CMS is the best option to use if you have experienced domestic abuse. Gingerbread provides information about how to apply to the CMS if you have experienced domestic abuse.

How much should child maintenance be?

There is no definite answer to this. If you are using the CMS the amount is worked out using a standard formula that takes into account the paying parent’s income and any other children that they are responsible for.

If you are making an arrangement with the other parent you can arrange any amount of child maintenance you like, as long as you both agree. Knowing how much to agree on can be difficult. You can find additional advice here and an online maintenance calculator can be found here which will help you calculate your child maintenance.

What if the other parent lives abroad?

If your child’s other parent lives outside the UK you won’t be able to arrange child maintenance through the CMS. If you can’t reach a family-basedarrangement then you could apply for a court order that can be enforced in the country where the other parent lives. This is called a Reciprocal Enforcement of Maintenance Order (REMO). You can also call Gingerbread for more information about this –0808 802 0925.

Additional help

Gingerbread – this charity has lots of very valuable information on child maintenance issues and a helpline if you need to talk to someone.

Child Maintenance Options – CMS provides free information and support on child maintenance. They are also the organisation you will have to contact before you can use the CMS. You can call them on 0800 988 0988.

Family Mediation Council-Mediation is where an independent professional mediator helps you come to an agreement with your child’s other parent. The Family Mediation Council can put in you in touch with a local mediation service.

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