Written by: Toni Foot
Family breakdown can be devastating for everyone involved, often leading to long-term friction between the separated parents. When children are involved there are two main issues that separated parents must reach an agreement about: contact and maintenance payments. It is important to remember that these are two separate issues though, regardless of how difficult things get between you. It is not acceptable to refuse contact because of disagreements about child maintenance payments, either in the eyes of the court or for the wellbeing of the children involved.
What is Child Maintenance?
Both parents have a duty to provide for their children financially. In most circumstances, this means that the non-resident parent (a person who is the biological parent of a child but does not live with them) is required to make maintenance payments to the resident parent (the parent with whom the child lives) to cover the cost of caring for the children. Where a child lives with someone other than one of their parents (such as a friend or grandparent) both parents are responsible for paying for the upkeep of their child.
This is where both parents (or persons with whom the child lives) agree how much maintenance should be paid and how. This could be a sum of money or contributions in other forms such as providing clothing, nappies or school uniform. Money could be paid on a regular basis or in a lump sum, as agreed by both parties.
Advantages of a voluntary agreement
This is the most amicable form of arrangement as both parents (or carers) have a say in what and how maintenance should be paid, meaning that a reasonable level of communication can be maintained – something which can really help children to cope with separation. If the relationship remains amicable, the non-resident parent is more likely to pay the agreed amount. The amount payable may also be higher than a court or the Child Support Agency (CSA) would award. This kind of informal agreement can be changed at any time appropriate to the needs of everyone involved, and payments can begin immediately. There are also no costs associated with this type of agreement as no fees or court charges will be applicable. If you are unsure how much a reasonable amount would be, you can use the CSA calculator on their website to help you decide (you do not have to have an agreement through the CSA).
Disadvantages of a voluntary agreement
Informal agreements of this kind are not legally binding so if the non-resident parent decides not to contribute, there is no way to enforce it. This can lead to long periods without any maintenance payments until another arrangement is made. If payments are missed, you may not be able to recover the amount owed. It may also be difficult to reach a voluntary agreement if communication is particularly difficult between you or if the non-resident parent is not contactable.
If you wish to make a voluntary agreement legally binding (and therefore enforceable through a court in the event of non-payment) you can apply for a consent order. You will have to pay court fees and both parties must agree to the order, but you will then have the support of the court should the agreement break down. If you get a consent order, you will not be able to apply to the CSA for at least one year and you will have to apply to the court again should you wish to change the terms of the agreement.
The Child Support Agency (CSA)
The CSA was set up to help parents caring for a child to access the maintenance payments required of the non-resident parent when they do not pay voluntarily. Anyone responsible for caring for a child can apply to the CSA for payments. The CSA will then look into the case, taking into account the non-resident parent’s income and responsibilities (such as other children they may have to provide for) and decide how much they should pay.
Advantages of using the CSA
A decision by the CSA is legally binding which means they are able to force payment and seek repayment of any debts incurred by non-payment. If the non-resident parent persistently misses payments the CSA can apply to have the payments deducted from their wages at source (in the same way tax is deducted). This can ensure payments are made, even when the non-resident parent is not happy with the agreement. The CSA may also be able to track a non-resident parent if they have moved or refuse to communicate with the resident parent/carer.
Disadvantages of using the CSA
The amount awarded is often lower than a voluntary agreement would provide because there is a maximum amount of income considered (£2000 per month). Many parents find the Child Support Agency difficult to work with because it can take a long time for them to reach a decision (leading to long periods without payment). You may also find that you have to be proactive in order to get anything done (if payments are missed for example) as they don’t always act without being chased! Although it is free to use the CSA currently, the government may introduce a fee in the future if parents wish to use the CSA (or now the new Child Maintenance Service).