What is child maintenance?
Following a divorce involving children, one parent may need to make regular payments to the other to help cover the costs of daily childcare. This is known as ‘child maintenance’. The payments are made to the parent who the child lives with most of the time to finance their everyday essentials, such as housing, food, and clothing.
There are three ways you can arrange child maintenance with your ex-partner:
- With a family-based arrangement
- Through the Child Maintenance Service
- With a court-ordered arrangement
A family-based arrangement is where you and your ex-partner work out between you how much your child maintenance should be and how it will be paid. You won’t need to speak to a solicitor, but you may find mediation useful in helping you to reach an agreement.
Many divorcing parents find this to be the best way to arrange child maintenance because:
- It’s flexible – you can easily change your arrangements to suit changing circumstances
- You can tailor it to your own individual circumstances
- Payments can be set up through a simple standing order
- It’s quick, easy, and free to set up
Are family-based arrangements legally binding?
Family-based arrangements are not legally binding, so you will need to be able to trust that the paying partner will stick to what you agreed. Because of this, a family-based arrangement may not be right for you if your relationship with your ex-partner is particularly bad.
However, you can apply to court to make your agreement into a legally binding document known as a ‘consent order’. This means that you can get a court to enforce the arrangement if your partner refuses to pay.
You should always seek legal advice before applying for a consent order. It costs £50 to apply and you will also need to pay solicitor fees, which can be expensive. You may be able to get legal aid to cover the costs if you:
- Are a victim of domestic abuse
- Made the agreement through mediation, which you got legal aid for
- Are on benefits or a low income
The Child Maintenance Service
You can contact the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) if you and your ex-partner are unable to agree on child maintenance arrangements. They will work out for you how much child maintenance should be paid.
Arranging child maintenance payments through the CMS takes the process out of your hands, which can be helpful if you don’t trust your ex-partner to stick to an agreement. The CMS can also take action to make your ex-partner pay if they don’t keep up with payments. However, you will need to pay administration charges to the CMS, so you could receive less money from your ex-partner overall than you would with a family-based arrangement.
To apply for child maintenance through the CMS, you will first need to contact Child Maintenance Choices. They will talk you through the options available to you. If you still choose not to arrange child maintenance yourself, the Choices team will help you to apply to the CMS. You will need to provide them with personal information, including:
- Your National Insurance number
- Bank account details
- Details about the child you are applying for, including the full names of the mother and father
Bear in mind that applying for child maintenance through the CMS can take a long time. You won’t get your first payment for around 12 weeks after you apply, but it could take as long as 32 weeks if the CMS has problems contacting the paying partner.
To avoid months of delay, it could be sensible to try as far as possible to make a family-based arrangement before contacting the CMS. Family mediation, where an independent ‘mediator’ helps to talk you through your differences, may be able to help you to reach an agreement.
There are a few situations where you or your ex-partner may be able to apply directly to the court for child maintenance, including:
- Arranging how to pay private school fees
- Arranging child maintenance for stepchildren or disabled children
- When the parent who will make the payments lives abroad
You can also apply directly to the court if your ex-partner has an income of £156,000 a year or more. In this circumstance, the court may decide that your ex-partner’s high income entitles you to higher child maintenance payments than the CMS would usually recommend.