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Providing Financial Support for Children

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. 

Child maintenance goes towards the child’s upbringing and living costs. There are a number of different ways of setting up child maintenance payments. It can be done by:

  • a private arrangement (or family-based arrangement)
  • using the Child Maintenance Service
  • a court order

Private child maintenance arrangements

Coming to an arrangement with the other parent is an option if you can to negotiate with them.  You will need to agree on how much maintenance will be paid and how often it will be paid.

This way of doing things can be more flexible, as the way the money is paid can be changed quite easily at any time. These agreements are not legally binding, however.

The Child Maintenance Service

Alternatively you may wish to use the government’s statutory Child Maintenance Service.

You will be able to apply to the Child Maintenance Service if you are a parent of the child, a grandparent or other guardian. The Child Maintenance Service cannot handle cases where the receiving parent and the child live outside of the UK, and can only assist in limited cases where the paying parent lives abroad.

The Child Support Agency is also a statutory child maintenance service, but it no longer starts new cases.

Applying to the Child Maintenance Service

Before applying to the Child Maintenance Service you must contact Child Maintenance Options. They will discuss your options with you, explain how to apply to the Child Maintenance Service and give you a reference number for doing so.

As a receiving parent you will not be able to open a case if you can’t provide contact details for the paying parent and the Child Maintenance Service cannot track them down.

If there are no problems contacting the paying parent then cases are usually set up within a month of application, and the first payment is usually processed within another six weeks.

It costs £20 to make an application.

Payment of child maintenance

Child maintenance arranged through the Child Maintenance Service can be paid in a number of ways:

  • directly between parents
  • from the paying parent’s earnings
  • by direct debit

Paying child maintenance directly

If you both agree, then you can make your own arrangements to pay the amount which the Child Maintenance Service has decided upon.  This is known as Direct Pay (or Maintenance Direct for older cases handled by the Child Support Agency).

In these cases the Child Maintenance Service or CSA are still able to enforce payments, however.

Payments managed by the Child Maintenance Service

If payment of child maintenance is handled by the Child Maintenance Service, they will base the timing of the payment on when the paying parent receives their wages, benefits, or pension. This is called Collect and Pay (or the full collection service for older cases handled by the CSA).

There are now fees for collecting and paying child maintenance if you are using Collect and Pay. Paying parents have to pay a 20% on top of their regular payment, and receiving parents will have 4% deducted from their regular payment.

Non-payment of child maintenance

If the paying parent fails to pay their child maintenance, then the statutory child maintenance services can take action to enforce payment. If a payment is missed then the service will first contact the paying parent to find out why they did not pay and arrange for the maintenance to be paid, warning them of action that might be taken otherwise.

There are a number of ways that the statutory child maintenance service can extract payment if it is not forthcoming:

  • taking money from earnings or benefits – if an employer does not comply with this they can be taken to court
  • taking money from a bank or building society account, either as regular payments or a one-off
  • taking court action

Taking court action

There are a number of actions that the court can take against a parent who has not paid child maintenance. They can:

  • send bailiffs to their home
  • send them to prison
  • collect the child maintenance owed from debts owed to them
  • force the sale of property and use the proceeds to pay the maintenance – if the paying parent tries to prevent this by selling their property to someone else, the court can stop them, or reverse the sale if it has already taken place

Disputes over parentage

Someone who is ordered to pay child maintenance may claim that they do not have to pay by virtue of not being the parent of the child. In this case the Child Maintenance Service or CSA will ask them for evidence of this.

However, the Child Maintenance or CSA will still be able to treat them as the father of the child in certain circumstances:

  • They were married to the mother at any time between the date of conception and the date of birth of the child.
  • They are named on the child’s birth certificate.
  • They have taken a DNA which shows they are the parent.
  • They adopted the child.
  • Where a child was born to a surrogate mother, they are named as the parent in a court order.

This is provided the child(ren) are habitually resident in the UK and have not been adopted since they and the mother separated.

When parentage is assumed then the parent will have to pay child maintenance until they can prove that they are not the parent, unless an amount has not yet been worked out, in which case the service dealing with the case will delay working it out until the disagreement is resolved.

Court orders

In some situations you may obtain a consent order from the court to set up child maintenance payments rather than using the Child Maintenance Service.

This might be because you are unable to apply to the Child Maintenance Service because your partner lives outside the UK, or you want more maintenance than the Child Maintenance’s calculation would give you due to your ex-partner’s very high income, for example.

A consent order from the court is legally binding, so the paying parent must keep to the payments that are agreed. If they do not, they can be forced to pay by the court.

It should be noted that parents cannot set up a statutory child maintenance agreement through the Child Maintenance Service if they have set up a consent order in the previous 12 months. Parents who have a consent order made before April 2003 cannot set up a statutory arrangement.