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With the cost of living in the UK at its highest in decades, many parents are exploring possible ways for reducing or avoiding child maintenance payments.
However, child maintenance is a highly complex subject, and it isn’t quite as simple as just applying to have your payments waived or reduced. From the legal responsibilities of each parent to the consequences of not complying, there are several factors to consider.
This guide will cover everything you need to know about child maintenance, including what it is, how payments are calculated, and what to do if you can’t afford to make payments.
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Child maintenance (also known as child support) is an agreed sum of money paid from one parent to another in regular instalments to help with a child’s daily living costs, like food, housing, and clothing. Typically, it is paid by the parent that does not live with the child to the parent with full-time care of the child.
In the UK, child maintenance is a legal requirement until the child is 16 (or 20 if they are still in full-time education). The only time it isn’t a legal requirement is when the child cohabits equally with both parents and costs are split evenly.
While child maintenance is often paid under difficult circumstances, such as the breakdown of a relationship, it is important to remember that it is not designed to punish parents without full-time care of their child. Rather, it is designed to ensure both parents are financially responsible for the cost of raising their child, even if they don’t live under the same roof.
The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) calculates child maintenance payments using the following six steps:
The CMS will retrieve information about the yearly gross income of the paying parent from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). They will also check whether they receive any benefits (tax credits, student grants, and loans don’t count as income).
The CMS will then check for factors that could affect the yearly gross income amount. This could include pension payments or any other children they support through child maintenance.
The yearly gross income amount will then be converted to a weekly figure to determine how much the paying parent can realistically afford to contribute towards child maintenance costs each month.
Based on the gross weekly income of the paying parent, one of the following weekly rates will be applied:
If the paying parent has a gross weekly income of more than £3,000, the receiving parent can apply to the court for extra child maintenance.
The CMS will then consider if the paying parent, or non-resident parent, is also paying child maintenance for any other children, including children living with them, or if any direct arrangements have been made for other children.
Based on the information gathered during previous steps, the CMS will determine the weekly child maintenance amount the paying parent must pay going forward.
Shared care is when the child stays overnight with the paying parent. Depending on the average number of nights of shared care per week, a deduction will be made from the paying parent’s weekly child maintenance amount.
Typically, shared care must happen once a week on average (52 nights a year) for a deduction to be made.
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The CMS will calculate child maintenance payments based on your gross weekly income. Because of this, you should be able to comfortably afford the amount proposed.
However, you may be able to ask the CMS to reconsider if you think the decision is wrong, your circumstances have changed, or you have special expenses. While your child maintenance payments are being reconsidered, you must continue making payments as normal.
If you think the CMS made a mistake or based their information on a mistake made by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) or HMRC, you can ask for a mandatory reconsideration.
When you call or write to the CMS about a mandatory reconsideration, you’ll be expected to provide information about your financial situation, clearly explaining why the decision is wrong.
The CMS will review your gross weekly income every year to ensure your child maintenance payments still accurately reflect your financial situation. Sometimes, your monthly payments will be revised.
However, if your circumstances change before your annual review, you can ask the CMS to reconsider how much you should pay. This could apply if you get a new job, have a child, or lose your job.
In most cases, your child maintenance payments will only be reduced if your income has dropped by 25% or more.
If you have special expenses, you can ask the CMS for a variation to change the amount you pay. Special expenses include the cost of:
Child maintenance payments are considered priority payments, which means there can be serious consequences for failing to make payments in full or on time.
However, if you’re struggling financially and can no longer afford to pay child maintenance, you have several options:
The first thing you should do when you know you won’t be able to meet your child support obligations is talk to the other parent.
This can be difficult if your relationship is estranged or you don’t have a way of getting in touch with them, but if it is a safe and viable option, it can help you come to a mutually beneficial solution without the court getting involved. For example, they may be willing to agree to temporarily reduce child maintenance payments until your finances improve or allow you to pay in larger instalments after a brief payment break.
Because child maintenance payments are based on your gross weekly income, any significant changes in your income should be reported to the CMS to ensure your monthly payments are still achievable.
For example, if your income has dropped by 25% or you’ve been made redundant, the CMS can recalculate your gross weekly income and reduce your child maintenance payments to an amount you can comfortably afford.
However, if your income has dropped by less than 25%, you’ll be expected to continue making payments as normal.
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For many parents, it may be tempting to simply miss a child maintenance payment in the hope that you won’t be asked to make up for any shortcomings. However, whether you’re paying through a private agreement or the CMS, the consequences of not paying child maintenance go beyond how the other parent may react.
When you fail to send child maintenance payments, the CMS will add up the total amount owed and consider it a debt. They will then be free to recover the money through their own debt collection process, which could involve sending an external debt collection company or bailiff to visit your address.
Failure to pay child support or comply with the debt collection process could also lead to the CMS applying for a court order to collect the money directly from your wages or benefits or, in serious cases, prison.
By letting the CMS know that you’re experiencing financial difficulty, you may be able to come to an agreement to lower your child’s maintenance payments and avoid a stressful debt collection process. Avoiding paying child maintenance will only make the situation worse and could lead to you owing more in legal costs in the long run.