How to arrange child maintenance

If you have children, both parents are expected to pay towards the cost of bringing them up until they’re at least 16. There are several ways you can arrange child maintenance.

Options for arranging child maintenance

There are four options for arranging with your ex-partner how child maintenance will be paid:

  1. Family-based arrangement: you and your ex-partner arrange child maintenance between you.
  2. Direct Pay: the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) calculates how much child maintenance should be paid, but you and your ex-partner arrange how it will be paid between you.
  3. Collect and Pay: the CMS calculates how much child maintenance should be paid, collects the money from one parent and passes it to the other.
  4. Court-ordered arrangement: this is used, for example, when the paying parent has a very high level of income; to arrange for school fees to be paid; or to decide how much maintenance should be paid for stepchildren or disabled children. It can also be used if the parent who’s supposed to be paying maintenance lives abroad.

In Scotland, children can apply for child maintenance if they’re 12 or over.

Using a family-based arrangement

Here, you and your ex-partner decide how much child maintenance will be paid and make arrangements to pay it.

You don’t have to talk to a solicitor or any other professional first, although you can use a mediator (an independent third party) to help you reach an agreement.

It’s best if the parent paying child maintenance sets up a standing order so that money is paid to the other parent regularly every week or month.

Pros

  • It’s the quickest and easiest way to arrange child maintenance.
  • You can agree on different types of support, such as buying school uniforms instead of making a payment.
  • It’s flexible – you can agree to change the arrangements if circumstances change.
  • It maintains lines of communication between you and your ex-partner.
  • You don’t have to pay to set one up.
  • Works well where there is trust between the parents so the receiving parent is confident the paying parent has disclosed their full income.

Cons

  • It’s not legally binding – there’s no-one to collect missed payments or enforce broken agreements.

If you need help to agree how much to pay, or how to pay it, you can find a mediator:

Find out how to make a family-based arrangement on the Child Maintenance Options website

Making a family-based arrangement legally binding

You may be able to turn a family-based arrangement into a legally-binding agreement either by asking your solicitor or by going to court and getting a consent or court order (in Scotland you have to get a ‘Minute of Agreement’).

You can use it to formalise other financial arrangements, such as who pays the mortgage, at the same time. You and your ex-partner have to agree what’s in the order.

Pros

  • It gives the arrangement a legal footing – if payments stop, you can ask the court to enforce the order.
  • Your solicitor might offer a fixed-fee option for drafting the consent order and filing it with the court if you and your ex-partner have agreed the level of child maintenance payments.

Cons

  • It can be expensive if there’s a major disagreement and you’d have to pay legal bills yourself unless you qualify for legal aid for legal fees. You can only do this in England or Wales when there has been domestic violence or child abduction. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, legal aid is still available but in all cases it is means-tested.
  • You can’t apply to the Child Maintenance Service for a statutory arrangement until a year after you’ve arranged a consent or court order, or Minute of Agreement in Scotland.
  • You may find it difficult to have the same level of flexibility as in an informal family-based agreement, as you would have to go back to court to vary the consent order or Minute of Agreement, risking a build-up of arrears in the meantime.

Using the Child Maintenance Service

If you and your ex-partner can’t agree child maintenance payments between you, you can contact the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

The CMS started taking over from the Child Support Agency (CSA) in 2013 and deals with all new cases.

It will work out how much child maintenance should be paid and it can arrange for the money to be paid, if you want it to. There’s normally a charge for using the CMS.

There are two different ways you can pay if you use the CMS: Direct Pay and Collect and Pay.

Using Direct Pay

Direct Pay means the CMS calculates how much child maintenance should be paid and the paying parent arranges how and when they will make the payments.

Pros

  • You don’t have to work out how much child maintenance is fair for you to pay or receive.
  • If your ex-partner doesn’t keep up the payments you can ask to move to Collect and Pay, which means the CMS can take action to make them pay.
  • The arrangement can last until your child reaches the age of 20, provided they’re in full-time education up to A-level, Highers or equivalent.

Cons

  • Involving the CMS may increase any bad feeling from your ex-partner.
  • You will have to pay a fee (currently £20) to apply to the CMS. You don’t pay this fee if you are in Northern Ireland, under 19, or a victim of domestic violence.
  • If you need the CMS to enforce the payments, there will be other charges.

You must speak to Child Maintenance Options if you want to use the CMS.

Find out more about the Child Maintenance Service on the Child Maintenance Options website

Using Collect and Pay

If your ex-partner won’t pay child maintenance you can ask the CMS to collect money from them and pass it onto you. You can also use this if you set up a Direct Pay arrangement that your ex isn’t sticking to. There is a charge for both parents.

Pros

  • You don’t have to work out how much child maintenance is fair for you to pay or receive.
  • You aren’t responsible for making sure your ex-partner pays child maintenance.
  • If he or she doesn’t pay, the CMS can take enforcement action, such as taking money directly from their wages or forcing the sale of a property or belongings. The paying parent will also have to pay extra charges if, for example, money has to be taken from their wages.

Cons

  • You will have to pay a fee (currently £20) to apply to the CMS. You don’t pay this fee if you are in Northern Ireland, under 19, or a victim of domestic violence.
  • The parent receiving child maintenance will have to pay 4% of the amount they receive to the CMS as a charge. The parent paying child maintenance has to pay 20%. This is money that could have gone towards child support.
  • You don’t have any say in what type of enforcement action the CMS takes or when it takes it.

Applying to the courts for child maintenance

There are limited circumstances when you or your ex-partner can apply directly to the court for child maintenance.

These include:

  • if the paying parent lives abroad
  • to work out how much child maintenance should be paid for stepchildren or disabled children
  • to arrange the payment of private school fees
  • when the paying parent has a very high level of income (more than £156,000 a year) – the court can decide whether one parent should pay ‘top-up’ child maintenance to the other, over and above the level worked out by the CMS
Find out more about using the courts to arrange child maintenance on the CM Options website

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