If you and your partner are getting a divorce and you have a child together, then one of the most important parts of the process is sorting out child maintenance.
This is a financial arrangement to cover the child’s living costs, paid to the child’s primary caregiver.
In this article, we’ll explain the different ways you can arrange child maintenance, how the Child Maintenance Service works, and a bit about how maintenance is calculated.
What is child maintenance?
Child maintenance refers to a regular payment made by the parent of a child to the primary caregiver that contributes towards the cost of raising the child. This is usually arranged between the parents of a child, whether they were married, living together or never in a relationship to begin with. However, it can be claimed by anyone who is the primary caregiver of a child, such as a grandparent or another legal guardian.
Child maintenance is not the same thing as spousal maintenance, which is paid in order to support an ex-spouse who is left financially worse off by divorce. Child maintenance may have to be paid even if spousal maintenance is not, for example, if the receiving parent cannot afford to both support themselves and the child/children. Read more about spousal maintenance in our article Spousal maintenance or a “clean break”: which is right for you?
How can you arrange child maintenance?
There are two ways of setting up child maintenance.
The first is for you and your ex-partner to make an informal agreement about how child maintenance will be paid, also known as a family-based arrangement.
You can decide how much is paid yourselves, though you could consider using the Child Maintenance Service’s (CMS) calculator to get an idea of how much it should be.
There are a few ways you can work out how much to contribute if you are the one paying maintenance. For example, you could pay a fixed amount per month, or a percentage of your income. Alternatively, you could agree to cover the cost of a particular outgoing, such as school supplies, food, holidays, etc.
The second way of arranging child maintenance is through the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). This service can work out how much one parent has to pay the other, arrange these payments, take action if payments are not made, and sort out any disagreements.
If you and your ex-partner cannot agree on how much should be paid in child maintenance, or if you are the primary care-giver and your ex is refusing to pay, you can apply to the CMS in order to force them to make payments. They must make payments if you are all UK residents and your child is 16 or under, or 20 or under if they’re in full-time education.
If you want to receive maintenance payments without your ex-spouse knowing your location or personal information, the Child Maintenance Service can arrange this as well.
How to use the Child Maintenance Service
If you want to use the CMS, you’ll first need to use the government’s ‘Get help arranging child maintenance’ tool to find out what your options are. Find more about this at Gov.uk.
You can then choose to either sort out your own arrangement or apply to organise child maintenance through the CMS. The tool will give you a reference number to use in your application, and you’ll also need your bank details and National Insurance number.
If you don’t care for the child day-to-day, you’ll also be asked about your employment, your income, any benefits you get, and your private pension contributions.
There is a £20 application fee for using the CMS service, but you won’t be charged if you are under 19, if you live in Northern Ireland, or if you have experienced domestic abuse.
The service will work out how much maintenance is paid based on the paying parent’s circumstances. You can then either opt to pay this directly or through the service’s “Collect and Pay” system. If either parent prefers to pay directly, this is the system that will be used. However, if a payment is missed, the CMS can choose to switch to Collect and Pay.
There are fees for using the Collect and Pay system. For the paying parent, this is 20% on top of the maintenance payment, and for the receiving parent, it is 4% taken out of the payment.
How is child maintenance calculated?
Child maintenance payments are calculated based on the paying parent’s weekly income, before tax, the number of children they are paying for, how much time the child spends with them (if any), and if they already pay maintenance for other children.
This table shows how the amount paid is decided according to gross weekly income:
Gross weekly income
£38 for one child, £51 for two children, £61 for three or more children
Between £7 and £100, or on benefits
Between £100.01 and £199.99
£200 to £3,000
(In Northern Ireland, the basic rate applies to weekly incomes between £200 and £800, and the rate between £800 and £3,000 is called basic plus).
The reduced and basic rate are both calculated as a percentage of the paying parent’s weekly income. The number of children factors into this rate. For example, on the basic rate, if the children stay with their primary caregiver full-time, the paying parent would pay:
- 12% of their weekly income for one child
- 16% of their weekly income for two children
- 19% of their weekly income for three or more children
£3,000 is the maximum amount of weekly income the CMS can take into account. If the paying parent’s weekly income exceeds this, the receiving parent can apply to the court for extra maintenance.
How does shared childcare affect maintenance payments?
If your child spends a certain amount of time per year with the parent paying child maintenance, this will reduce the amount they need to pay.
Reductions are roughly (but not exactly) equivalent to how many nights per week the child stays with the paying parent.
If, over the course of a year, the child stays with the paying parent for 52 to 103 nights, maintenance is reduced by 1/7th per child.
This reduction is raised to 2/7ths if they stay for 104 to 155 nights, 3/7ths for 156 to 174 nights, and a half (50%) if they stay for 175 nights or more a year, plus an extra £7 a week reduction per child.
Will child maintenance payments affect my benefits?
Receiving child maintenance payments won’t affect any benefits that either you and your children get, including Universal Credit. Child maintenance payments are also not subject to tax.
Find out more…
Learn more about separating your finances when you get a divorce in our articles Joint bank accounts: what happens if you split up?, How are pensions shared in a divorce? and Sorting out your finances when a relationship ends.
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