Maintenance: what you need to know

Separation and divorce are difficult enough, without having to worry about unravelling your finances, but there are ways to make it easier. Our guides take you through what you need to know step by step…

Man looking at his phone to know more about maintenance options

Maintenance is the term given to payments which allow you and or your ex-partner to continue supporting your children after your relationship breaks down.

Maintenance is paid regardless of whether you have been married, cohabiting or in a civil partnership.

Child maintenance is different from spousal support. Spousal support is a regular payment made by a former husband, wife or civil partner to their ex-partner. It tends to be paid where one partner can’t support themselves financially. Spousal support can be paid whether or not the couple have had children. Child maintenance is a payment which supports children from the relationship. Spousal support can also be paid alongside child maintenance but is totally separate.

Child maintenance is paid regularly to the parent who the child lives with / spends the majority of their time with.

What is paid depends on what the other parent earns, as well as how long the child spends with the parent, and how many other children the partner has to support.

A parent who doesn’t live with their child, or who only lives with their child part of the time, should still pay child maintenance to the other parent. Even if you don’t see your child, you will still need to pay to support them.

If you share the care of your child exactly 50/50, maintenance might not need to be paid – in this case, you need to seek legal advice.

Child maintenance has to be paid for children who are:

  • Under 16,
  • Under 20 and in full-time, non-advanced education (‘A’ levels and equivalent)
  • 16 or 17 years old who have left full-time education but have registered for work or training

Child maintenance should cover the cost of looking after the child, but it can include toys and other items, depending on what agreement you reach with your ex-partner.

There are four ways maintenance can be paid:

Family-based Arrangement: one partner pays the other via a standing order, cash or bank payment.

Direct Pay: the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) calculates how much should be paid, but you and your ex-partner arrange how it will be paid between you.

Collect and Pay: the CMS collects the money from one parent and passes it to the other.

Court-ordered Arrangement: this is normally when one parent earns a high income. It allows the parents 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 paying maintenance lives abroad.

When payments are made through the CMS, there are potentially three charges: a £20 application fee, an enforcement charge for non-payment, and a fee for using Collect and Pay. With Collect and Pay, the partner paying will be charged 20 per cent on top of the child maintenance and parents receiving the payment pay a four per cent collection fee. So for every £100, the paying parent will pay £120, and the receiving parent will only get £96.

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

Help with a Family-based Arrangement

The Child Maintenance Options service is a free service which can help you and your partner come to an arrangement. You can download a form at cmoptions.org  The form will not be legally binding, but you can apply to the Child Maintenance Service if things don’t work out.

You can, at a later date, apply to court for a ‘consent order’ to make the agreement legally binding, but both parents must agree on it. A consent order is usually used when parents are divorcing and sorting out their finances, so it might include other agreements, such as who is going to pay the mortgage.

The Child Maintenance Options leaflet ‘Talking about Money’ can help you look at your budget and what may be needed for children at different ages. The leaflet is available on their website cmoptions.org and an online maintenance calculator can be found at www.gov.uk/calculateyour-child-maintenance

Help with Direct Pay/Collect and Pay

If you can’t agree on an amount, the Child Maintenance Service can act as a third party. It will do a calculation using a set formula and can take action against the paying parent if they don’t pay. If the calculation is proven to be wrong at a later date, you can apply for compensation. There’s usually a £20 application fee and you can’t control when and how the CMS takes enforcement action if the other parent doesn’t pay

Help with a Court-ordered Arrangement

If the paying parent earns a very high salary (which counts as over £156,000 a year), you would need to apply to court for more. You should get independent legal advice, which you would have to pay for. There are also court fees for making and enforcing the order. Citizen’s Advice has details on its website here.

If your child’s other parent lives abroad, you can’t use the CMS to arrange child maintenance unless your child’s other parent is either:

  • a UK civil servant, or works within Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service
  • a member of the armed forces, working for a company that is based and registered in the UK
  • working on secondment for a UK regional health authority or local council.

You could apply for a court order that can be enforced in the country where the other parent lives. The process of obtaining a court order for a paying parent who lives abroad is called a Reciprocal Enforcement of Maintenance Order (REMO). The country the paying parent lives in must be a member of the REMO scheme.

Find out here how much child maintenance you may have to pay or receive.

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