The Child Maintenance Service
The Government’s aim is that improved help and support to parents will help more parents work out child maintenance themselves without needing to involve the state. However, the Government recognises that separated parents cannot always work things out and there are some occasions when it is not appropriate for them to try. This is why the Government wants to provide an effective statutory child maintenance service as a fall back.
The Child Maintenance Service is the new statutory child maintenance service. It works out how much, and when, child maintenance should be paid on behalf of some separated parents in England, Wales and Scotland. It also has the capability, where necessary, to collect child maintenance from one parent and pay it out to the other (e.g. by deducting child maintenance at source from earnings or bank accounts).
It supports parents who can’t make a family-based arrangement. The aim is to get more money to more children, by helping parents who live apart to contribute towards their children’s upkeep.
What are the new features of the Child Maintenance Service?
The Child Maintenance Service is a different service to the Child Support Agency. It has with new features and that aims to provide a better service to separated parents and their children.
New child maintenance calculations.
The Child Maintenance Service uses the paying parent’s gross annual income, from the latest available tax year, as the starting point to work out child maintenance. In most cases, this information is provided to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) by the paying parent, their employer or accountant. This means it can process applications more quickly. It also means the Child Maintenance Service can work out an accurate amount without waiting for the paying parent to provide information.
Every year the Child Maintenance Service will review the paying parent’s income, benefit status and other circumstances. This will help to work out if the amount of child maintenance they pay for the next 12 months should stay the same, or if it should go up or down. This is called the Annual Review, and will be done automatically. It will ensure that maintenance calculations remain fair and accurate.
Increased flat rate of child maintenance.
Parents who are on low incomes or on benefits pay a flat rate of child maintenance. To reflect the increased costs of bringing up a child, this flat rate has been increased from £5 to £7 for parents using the Child Maintenance Service.
This increase in the flat rate will increase the amount of money flowing to children and reflects more closely the maintenance which non-resident parents in work, but not on flat rate, are required to pay.
The flat rate for existing cases within the Child Support Agency will remain at £5.
Unlike in the Child Support Agency, parents who share the day-to-day care of their children exactly equally are not required to pay maintenance to each other if they have a Child Maintenance Service case. Both parents are required to show evidence that the day-to-day care is shared exactly equally.
An assumption of shared care equivalent to one night per week may be made where parents agree in principle that there is a shared care arrangement but cannot agree on the number of nights and neither parent is able to provide evidence supporting their claim.
A firm approach to non-payment.
If a paying parent does not pay the right amount of child maintenance on time, then the Child Maintenance Service can, and will, take appropriate action to get the money owed. If a paying parent knows they’re going to be late making a payment or miss a payment, it’s important they tell the Child Maintenance Service straight away so that the situation can be discussed.
Within 72 hours of a payment being missed, the Child Maintenance Service will contact a paying parent to seek continuing payments and so stop arrears building up.
If child maintenance continues not to be paid, there are three things the Child Maintenance Service can do to get unpaid child maintenance from a paying parent:
- take the money direct from their earnings;
- take the money from their bank or building society account;
- or take action through the courts.
If the matter goes to the courts, there are several actions the Child Maintenance Service can take.
For example, it can ask the court to:
- instruct bailiffs to recover the money;
- sell a paying parent’s property;
- or send a paying parent to prison.
If the Child Maintenance Service has to take action through the courts, then the paying parent may have to pay their own legal costs as well as the Child Maintenance Service’s legal costs. This would be in addition to the child maintenance owed.
Both paying parents and receiving parents will be sent a statement each year. Paying parents will see how much child maintenance they have paid during the previous 12 months. Receiving parents will see the amount of maintenance they have received during the previous 12 months.
It is mandatory for parents wishing to apply to the Child Maintenance Service to have a conversation with Child Maintenance Options to discuss their choices and consider alternatives before they can proceed with their application.
Change in the upper age limit.
One final change is that for all cases managed by the Child Support Agency and Child Maintenance Service the upper age at which children can qualify for child maintenance has changed to their 20th birthday (up from their 19th birthday). This is in line with the Child Benefit age range.
A further round of changes will take place after the Child Maintenance Service has been shown to be working well:
It is intended that in future there will be a fee for applying to the Child Maintenance Service. There will be exemptions to this application fee for victims of domestic violence and applicants aged 18 or under. The proposed level of the application fee is £20.
There will also be a collection fee if parents use the Child Maintenance Service to collect and pass on payments (a Collect & Pay arrangement). Collection fees will be payable by both parents, including those people who have become clients of the Child Maintenance Service before charging has been introduced. The proposed collection fee will be 4% of child maintenance for the receiving parent and for paying parents it is 20% calculated as on top of the child maintenance calculation.
Paying parents will also have to pay enforcement charges if the Child Maintenance Service has to take enforcement action against them.
***The introduction of charging is subject to the final approval of Parliament***.
The Government intends that the fees will encourage parents to think about whether they can make a family-based arrangement rather than just default into the Child Maintenance Service or, if they are unable to do that, to consider a Direct Pay arrangement within the Child Maintenance Service.
Changes to Direct Pay.
At present, both parents have to agree to a Direct Pay arrangement (called Maintenance Direct within the Child Support Agency). In future, either parent with a Child Maintenance Service arrangement will be able to request Direct Pay. Parents will be able to avoid collection fees by opting for Direct Pay in the future, but will still have to pay the application fee. If payments are not made, the case can be moved to the Collect & Pay service.
The Government has also worked with banks and building societies so that people can get an account that allows them to receive money from the paying parent securely and without having to disclose personal details (e.g. contact numbers or bank account details).
After the Child Maintenance Service has been shown to be working well, the process of closing existing Child Support Agency cases will begin. Parents will then have the opportunity of deciding whether to make a family-based arrangement or apply to the Child Maintenance Service. Support will be provided by Child Maintenance Options to help them do this.
Parents will be given six months notice that their case is to close.
This process of case closure will take around three years and affect around two million parents. In the meantime, it’s important parents keep paying their regular child maintenance payments.
The Government has committed to providing information and guidance to help organisations support people who turn to them for advice.
***Final go-ahead for cases to close is subject to the approval of Parliament.***