Paying or receiving spousal maintenance (periodical allowance in Scotland) can be difficult for both parties. It means having to re-think your household budget, while trying to get to grips with your new circumstances. This guide will help you work out how any changes in income, new relationships and other events might impact maintenance payments.
Changes to your spousal maintenance/ periodical allowance payments
Having difficulty meeting payments? Struggling to make ends meet with what you’re getting? Child Maintenance Options is an impartial, free service designed to help separated parents make the best decisions for themselves and their children.
If you’re having significant difficulties managing on the amount of money you have, or if the income of your ex-partner (husband, wife or civil partner) has increased significantly, then it might be possible to have payments to you increased.
In the same way, if you make payments to your ex-partner and your income position worsens, you can ask for the level of the payments to be reduced.
In either scenario, it’s important to act quickly so you don’t build up large arrears.
Reaching an agreement
If you and your ex-partner can’t agree a change to payments given or received, consider using mediation.
It involves a trained mediator helping you agree a decision and it is much cheaper than going to court.
But remember, if you or your ex-partner are trying to change a court order (called ‘vary’ in legal language), then only the court can do this.
Once you reach another agreement, through mediation or other means, you need to ask the court to endorse it.
Otherwise, the original order just keeps running and could lead to major complications over arrears.
If you can’t reach an agreement, applying directly to the court might be the only option. However, it’s expensive and there’s no guarantee you’ll get the outcome you want.
You should get legal advice to see what your options are before you do this.
Changes in income or wealth
Significant change to your financial position might include losing your job with no immediate prospect of finding a new one, starting a new job on a much lower salary, ill health or disability.
It can also mean the exact opposite: finding a new job with a much higher salary or inheriting or winning a large sum of money.
Capitalising spousal maintenance/periodical allowance payments
If the financial position – the income or capital wealth – of the paying ex-partner improves significantly, then it might be possible to ‘capitalise’ the maintenance payments.
This means that the person who receives the maintenance would get a one-off lump sum and the maintenance payments would stop (called a ‘clean break’).
Courts will always want to consider whether a ‘clean break’ is financially possible without causing either person undue hardship.
In Northern Ireland and Scotland, both you and your ex-partner would have to agree to capitalising payments.
Changes if you enter a new relationship
Maintenance payments to you will stop if you remarry or enter a new civil partnership.
Living with someone else in a relationship, without marrying or entering a civil partnership, doesn’t automatically mean that payments from your ex-partner will stop.
But he or she could ask you to agree to reduce the amount, or stop payments altogether.
This is on the basis that there is someone else who is now contributing to your living costs.
This can be complicated so it’s worth taking legal advice.
Changes to child maintenance
If there is a substantial change in income or wealth available to you or your ex-partner then you might be able to adjust the level of child maintenance payments.
If you have a family-based arrangement with your ex-partner, you can talk to him or her about making changes.
You should check with your solicitor about updating any court order (if you have one) that contains previous agreements on child maintenance payments.
If you move in with a new partner and you’re receiving child support, this won’t be affected by your relationship, whether or not you marry or enter a civil partnership.
But you can agree with your ex-partner to change the level of payments, if for example income levels change.
If stepchildren are involved, it might be worth taking legal advice.
If you can’t afford to pay child maintenance (because of coronavirus)
If you continue to receive your full income (or at least 80% of it if you’ve been furloughed), you will still have to keep paying your child maintenance payments in full,
However, if you’ve been made redundant or lost at least 25% of your income because of the pandemic, you will be able to pay less.
But remember, the government doesn’t make up any child maintenance shortfall.
If you can’t pay child maintenance you can:
1. Speak to the receiving parent
This is the quickest and simplest way to reach an agreement, if you are on good terms with your ex-partner.
It might be worth asking to reduce child maintenance payments for now. Then plan to return to the normal, higher amount when your income returns to normal.
If you can come to an arrangement, and your income has dropped by at least 25%, still contact the Child Maintenance Service, to make them aware. They may be able to offer more support because of the pandemic.
2. If you can’t agree, ask the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) to step in
Ask the CMS to calculate what you should be paying if your income has fallen by 25% or more.
If it hasn’t you will have to carry on paying the full amount. The CMS will make their assessment based on your gross annual income.
If you can pay, but refuse to, the CMS can enforce payments. These will be deducted directly from your earnings or bank account.
At the moment, you can just call the CMS to let them know how your financial situation has changed because of coronavirus. But you will need to provide evidence to back this up as a later date.
Use the online portal on the CMS websiteopens in new window if there is any reason you can’t make your maintenance payments other than because of coronavirus.
What could happen if I don’t pay my child maintenance?
The consequences can be severe. If you miss payments, the CMS have the power to deduct arrears and ongoing payments straight from your earnings or bank account. They have a wide range of other powers and, as a last resort, you could face prison if you refuse to pay.
Child Maintenance payments are a priority debt. If you have missed more than one payment or are juggling other debts it’s important you pay them off in the right order as some are more urgent and some lenders have more power than others.
See our guide on how to prioritise your debts to help you work out which ones to pay off first.
Find free confidential debt advice online, over the phone or near to where you live using our debt advice locator.