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.
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, unless the parties invited the court by agreement to order an agreed sum of child maintenance as part of a financial order.
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, or the Child Maintenance Service, another statutory service dealing with child maintenance.
So the options are:
- Coming to a private agreement, which if a divorcing party agree, can be incorporated into any financial order made by the court in their divorce or dissolution proceedings.
- Arranging child maintenance through the Child Maintenance Service (the CSA no longer open new cases)
If you need advice on these options, you could make use of our telephone advice service.
Child maintenance can be arranged privately without involving a third party, although 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 Child Maintenance Service.
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 Child Maintenance Service 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 statutory child maintenance services are 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.
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 Child Maintenance Service 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.
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