Child Maintenance and the Child Support Agency (CSA)
Parental pay and the CSA
Unfortunately in today’s society, all too many relationships break down and one of the most emotionally challenging aspects is how to deal with the children and the issues surrounding child support.
Child maintenance is periodically-paid financial support for a child whose parents have parted ways. It is received by the parent who cares for the child on a daily basis from the other parent. The money goes towards the daily living costs of the child.
Recent changes in the law
What many people are unaware of is that when the Government introduced the Child Support Agency (CSA) in the early ‘90s the Courts lost their powers to deal with maintenance for children. This meant that child maintenance was no longer a case for the divorce courts or for lawyers.
The two main circumstances where the Courts used to make maintenance orders were where parents separated or divorced, or where the parents were not married and the child’s father did not want to help financially with a child’s upbringing.
From this point until 2008, the only option was to arrange child maintenance through the CSA. However, there is now the extra option of coming to a private agreement without involving the CSA.
So the options are:
- Coming to a private agreement
- Arranging child maintenance through the CSA
If you need advice on these options, you could make use of our unlimited telephone advice service.
What many parents do not realise is that child maintenance can be arranged privately without involving a third party. Of course, this is only a viable option if the relationship has remained relatively amicable and both parties are willing to negotiate in a civilised manner.
This option can be the most painless as it does not involve any legal proceedings and is merely an agreement between two people. Anyone considering this kind of child maintenance arrangement must however be confident that the two parties can trust each other and co-operate effectively and will be able to sustain the terms which are agreed.
A private agreement can offer greater flexibility as legal authorities do not need to be involved. Making special arrangements is also easier when making a private agreement than when involving the CSA.
If the agreement is not upheld due to an embittering of the relationship between the parties, it may be better to set up an arrangement through the CSA instead. If circumstances change, i.e. the parent making the maintenance payments loses their job or other source of income then the agreement could be renegotiated, but if this proves difficult then the CSA is probably the best option.
How to make a private agreement
The first thing to consider is the amount of money to be paid. The figure agreed should reflect the income of the parent paying the maintenance, and a reasonable and realistic amount must be settled upon. You need to make an estimate of the extent of the living costs of the child (school, clothing, food, etc) and make sure you come to a sum which can cover these.
As well as financial payments you should consider if you intend to make any additional payments ‘in kind’, which is where specific items are paid for.
Subsequently it needs to be decided how frequently the payments can be made. It can be done weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Which of these is most appropriate for you will depend on your individual circumstances.
Thirdly you must choose how the payments are made. Setting up a standing order with a bank is the most likely way of ensuring complete and timely payments, but the maintenance can be paid by cash or cheques if preferred.
If you and your partner are agreed on the above points, then it is wise to put it in writing and have it signed by both parties, as this is a firm sign of commitment. It can make the agreement more robust, but bear in mind that it will not be legally binding. Before the matter is closed you may also want to arrange to review the agreement from time to time so that it can be adjusted in accordance with any changes of the circumstances of the parents.
The one obvious drawback of a private arrangement is that it is not legally enforceable. There is however one way of making a private agreement legally binding, which is through a Consent Order. Alternatively, those parents who make an agreement which has been reached with the help of a solicitor can rubber stamp it this way.
If a Consent Order has been granted, then the parent paying maintenance is under a legal obligation to make the agreed maintenance payments, and the courts have the authority to demand payment if it is not forthcoming. Proceed with caution, however, as by taking out a Consent Order you will not be able to ask the CSA to put an arrangement together for you until 12 months have passed.
Unfortunately this process is costly and is not covered by legal aid if your sole purpose for going to the courts is to obtain a Consent Order for child maintenance.
The Child Support Agency (CSA)
If you are unable or unwilling to make a private agreement or take out a Consent Order, then a child maintenance agreement can be set up for you by the Child Support Agency (CSA). Their service comes free of charge and they endeavour to have an arrangement in place within 12 weeks of application. As well as setting up the maintenance arrangement and determining the magnitude and frequency of the payment, they also take care of transferring the funds from one parent to the other.
Those who may be best served to allow the CSA to deal with their case are estranged partners who cannot cooperate to privately agree to maintenance, and those who want a more concrete arrangement without the cost and hassle of going to court.
It is the duty of the CSA to ensure that all parents who live apart from their children are contributing financially to their upkeep, and part of their operation is to track down those who are not paying.
Child maintenance arranged through the CSA is paid until the child reaches 16 years of age (19 years if the child remains in full-time education) and can be paid weekly, fortnightly or monthly.
The amount of maintenance paid is computed by applying one of four rates to the non-resident parent’s income. The CSA provides a maintenance calculator on their website, which allows you to get a rough indication of the amount of money you might pay or receive, depending on your circumstances.
Today the Child Support Agency deals with maintenance for children in all circumstances, unless a private agreement can be made, or a Consent Order taken out. This means that lawyers cannot help very much when a parent won’t pay anything to help the other parent bring up their child, or where the CSA has already made an assessment and paying parent refuses to comply.
If such a situation arises where payment is not forthcoming, the responsibility rests with the CSA to take action by taking the non-payer to Court to make them pay by, for example, asking the Court to make an Attachment of Earnings Order so that the money is taken out of the parent's wages each week. Where a maintenance-paying parent is living abroad, the CSA can, in theory, enforce payment by i) getting a Court order and ii) getting it enforced by local law enforcement authorities. They can send orders to all EU states, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some others but they actually never do this because it costs them too much money.
N.B. there are restrictions on what the CSA can deal with. They cannot, for example, deal with maintenance for children over 17 years of age.
More information is available on the CSA’s website at www.csa.gov.uk.
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