Child maintenance - what can separated parents do
- AuthorShelley Cumbers
The question of child maintenance, including how much should be paid and what factors are considered in the calculation, is common for separating families and often addressed in an initial discussion with a family law solicitor following a relationship breakdown.
In many cases, separated parents will agree between themselves how much child maintenance will be paid, the frequency of payments and the arrangements for review. However, for some families, it is not possible for parents to agree to the child maintenance arrangements and they must resort to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) for assistance.
How can families calculate child maintenance?
To help parents work out the amount of child maintenance and agree the arrangements themselves, they can use the online child maintenance calculator found at Calculate your child maintenance - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).
The online calculator gives an indication of the likely amount the CMS may work out for the family in the absence of an agreement. Parents can then discuss the amount between themselves with a view to making their own child maintenance arrangements. To use the online calculator, the following details are required:
- The paying parent’s income, including any state pension
- The benefits received by the paying parent
- The number of nights the child or children stay overnight with the paying parent
What happens if child maintenance is not agreed?
When separated parents cannot resolve the child maintenance arrangements amicably, it is open to either parent to apply to the CMS for assistance.
Disputes over child maintenance can arise when families do not agree on the arrangements for their children generally in terms of where the children will live and how much time they will spend with both parents, including the number of overnight stays.
In other cases, the parents may not agree on the basis of the child maintenance calculation in terms of the paying parent’s income or permitted deductions. Further, for some families, the parent with responsibility for paying child maintenance may simply ignore a request from the other parent, refuse to pay child maintenance voluntarily, or their whereabouts may be unknown.
What is the Child Maintenance Service/CMS?
The CMS is the government’s statutory child maintenance service. The CMS works out and, if necessary, collects and pays out child maintenance for separated parents in England, Wales and Scotland, to ensure parents who live apart from their children contribute towards their children’s upkeep and everyday living expenses.
In most cases the parent who does not have the main day-to-day care of the child pays child maintenance to the parent who does have the main day-to-day care. There are certain scenarios where the parent will not have to pay anything through the CMS including:
- Where the childcare is shared equally between both parents
- Where the paying parent is a full-time student without an income
- Where the paying parent is in prison
How does the CMS calculate child maintenance?
To calculate the amount of child maintenance payable, the CMS will consider the following:
- The annual gross income of the paying parent
- Things that could change the gross income amount, like pension payments or other children the paying parent supports
- The CMS rates (of which there are 5 different rates)
- The number of children the paying parent must pay child maintenance for, including any other children living with them
- A deduction for overnight shared care
How is child maintenance paid following a CMS assessment?
Once the CMS are involved and have worked out the amount of child maintenance payable, parents will have several options. Child maintenance can be paid directly between parents or it can be collected and paid by the CMS which will involve an automatic deduction from earnings, benefits or pension for example.
Does the CMS charge a fee?
If the CMS deals with the collection and payment of child maintenance, there will be a fee charged by the CMS each time a payment is made and received. The fee is 20% for paying parents (which is added to the payment) and 4% for receiving parents (which is taken off the payment).
What happens if child maintenance is not paid?
If child maintenance is not paid after the CMS has worked out the amount payable, the CMS has the power to take enforcement action which may result in additional charges being paid.
How effective is the CMS?
Unfortunately, although the role of the CMS is to help ensure child maintenance is paid when parents are unable to make a private arrangement, the agency is heavily criticised on how effective it is in meeting this responsibility.
Most recently, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (the APPG) on Single Parent Families met to discuss how the CMS must be improved for the benefit of children of single parent families across the country. It was revealed that as of December 2021 there has been over £435.9 million in unpaid child maintenance owed through the CMS Collect & Pay service since the CMS was formed in 2012. This is a staggering amount.
Gingerbread – the national charity for single parents – manages the APPG. Having heard from many single parents about their frustrating experiences with the CMS and the discussions held during the APPG meeting in January 2022, Gingerbread have made several recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the CMS including:
- The CMS to make better use of its enforcement powers
- Introduce fairer CMS charges, including a scrapping of the 4% charge for receiving parents using the Collect & Pay service
- Improve its customer service, communication with parents, investigation of complaints and case management
- The Department for Work and Pensions must be more transparent about the data it shares about the CMS to ensure the CMS can be properly scrutinised
- The service must be better attuned to the needs of domestic abuse survivors
Further details can be found on the Gingerbread website, which includes a link to a recording of the APPG meeting - 'What am I paying for?': The need to improve the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) - Gingerbread
What should people do?
Given the significant shortcomings of the CMS as highlighted above, parents should be encouraged if possible to agree to the child maintenance arrangements themselves. This may be addressed as part of an overall settlement on divorce when separated parents will also have to deal with the overall financial consequences of their separation including sorting out their property, capital, business, and pension assets, as well as the arrangements for the children.
If you are involved in a separation or divorce and need assistance regarding any of the issues raised in this blog, please get in touch. We are always happy to discuss matters with you and offer a free 15 minute initial telephone call. If you would like to take advantage of that please give us a call.
I can be contacted via email@example.com or on 01206 217378.