Families and divorce

Coronavirus: how are child maintenance payments affected?

With many employees being furloughed during this unprecedented crisis, many payers of child maintenance are seeking to reduce payments, or even stop them completely.  In this article, Louise Buttery, family law specialist, looks at how this affects people who pay or receive child maintenance and their children.

What is child maintenance?

Both parents have a legal obligation to financially support their children while they are growing up.  Child maintenance usually comprises regular financial payments made towards a child’s everyday living costs.  Payments are usually made to the parent a child spends most of their time with, by the parent a child spends less of their time with.  

How is child maintenance arranged?

Child maintenance can be arranged in the following ways:

  • a family-based arrangement
  • the Child Maintenance Service (a government scheme), or
  • a court order.

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Family-based child maintenance arrangements

This is usually the quickest and easiest way to arrange child maintenance.  Both parents will need to agree the amount of child maintenance to be paid and how regularly these payments will be made.  

Family-based arrangements are not usually legally binding.  This means that if the payments you receive are reduced or stopped without your agreement, you cannot use the legal system to reinstate the payments.

Government scheme (Child Maintenance Service)

If a family-based arrangement breaks down or cannot be agreed in the first place, you should consider asking the Child Maintenance Service to put in place an agreement which is enforceable.  This will ensure that the parent who should be making child maintenance payments can be forced to pay them, at the calculated rate.

The Child Maintenance Service uses a calculation set by the government to calculate the amount of child maintenance one parent should be paying to the other.  The Child Maintenance Service can only calculate child maintenance based on incomes up to £3,000 per week (gross).  Any income above this amount is ignored.

Many separated couples use the government’s calculation to agree the amount of child maintenance to be paid by way of a family-based arrangement.  This is because a fee is due every time a payment is made or received via the Child Maintenance Service.  It is cheaper for both parents if a family-based arrangement can be agreed.

If the Child Maintenance Service is collecting and paying child maintenance, any missed payments are enforceable.  

A court order

The court can deal with applications for child maintenance in some, limited situations:

  • if the paying parent lives outside the UK
  • if there are additional expenses which aren’t taken into account by the Child Maintenance Service calculation (arising from, for example, a child’s disability), or
  • if the paying parent has a very high income and exceeds the maximum amount that would be awarded by the Child Maintenance Service (i.e. if the paying parent’s gross income exceeds £3,000 per week). 

How might Coronavirus impact child maintenance?

Many employees are being furloughed or made redundant as a result of the current economic climate.  Similarly, many self-employed parents are unable to work at the moment and are also seeing a significant reduction in their income.  As a result, it’s clear that there will be genuine circumstances in which a parent’s ability to pay child maintenance will be reduced.

If a paying parent is still receiving their full pay or income, they must continue to make child maintenance payments, regardless of the current climate.

What can I do if my ex-partner stops paying child maintenance?

Family-based arrangements:

  • these are hard to enforce
  • speak to each other and keep communicating
  • consider reducing child maintenance payments for the time-being, but with a view to them to returning to the normal, higher amount when the paying parent starts receiving their full income again
  • try to agree a solution which you can both live with during this unprecedented time
  • if you cannot agree, consider making an application to the Child Maintenance Service for assistance.

Government scheme (Child Maintenance Service):

  • speak to the Child Maintenance Service and explain the circumstances
  • if the paying parent is able to pay but refusing to do so, the Child Maintenance Service can enforce payments.  For example, child maintenance payments can be deducted directly from their earnings or from their bank account.
  • although there has been no change to legislation, the Child Maintenance Service has updated their guidance to confirm that they are not currently contacting paying parents about missing payments.  This appears to be as a result of a reduction in their own staffing resources arising from the current coronavirus pandemic.  Arrears will accrue and will ultimately be recovered, but it is likely to take longer than usual.

Court order:

  • if payments are reduced or stopped (unless agreed between you), the paying parent will be in breach of the court order
  • if the paying parent claims they cannot pay but you think they can, the court order can be enforced.

What can I do if I cannot pay child maintenance to my ex-partner?

Family-based arrangements:

  • speak to the receiving parent
  • ask to reduce child maintenance payments for the time-being, but with a view to them returning to the normal, higher amount when you start receiving your full income again
  • if you cannot agree, consider asking the Child Maintenance Service to calculate what you should be  paying.

Government scheme (Child Maintenance Service):

  • speak to the Child Maintenance Service and explain the circumstances
  • if your income has reduced by 25% (or more) as a result of being furloughed or made redundant, the Child Maintenance Service will reassess the amount of child maintenance you should be paying.  If you have been furloughed and your income has reduced by 20% to 80% of your usual income, you will still be expected to pay child maintenance in full
  • if you are able to pay but refusing to do so, the Child Maintenance Service can enforce payments. Child maintenance payments can be deducted directly from your earnings or bank account.
  • the Child Maintenance Service are currently prioritising loss of employment changes over changes to income, as a result of lack of resources arising from the coronavirus pandemic
  • verbal notice of any change in circumstances is being accepted at present, but full documentary evidence will be required at a later date.  If false information has been given, any revision will be revoked and arrears will be enforce

Cour order:

  • if payments are reduced or stopped (unless agreed between you), you will be in breach of the court order
  • if you are genuinely unable to meet payments as a result of a reduction in your income, you can ask the court to vary the court order and reduce the amount of child maintenance you need to pay.

Other considerations

This is an unprecedented and understandably difficult time for everyone.  It’s more important than ever for both parents to keep channels of communication open between them.

If you are the receiving parent and rely on a regular monthly child maintenance payment, it’s understandable that you will find it more difficult than normal to make ends meet.  However, if the paying parent has been furloughed or made redundant, they will be facing similar struggles.  It’s important for you both to be sensitive and understanding of each other’s financial position.

If you cannot reach an agreement between you as to how to get through the next few weeks, or months as it may turn out to be, you may find it helpful to use other non-court services.

A mediator can speak with you both (most are continuing to operate by video conference facilities such as Zoom or Skype) to help you communicate and reach an agreement between you.

An arbitrator (a legally trained professional, qualified to make a ruling in a very similar way to a judge) can be instructed by you both to make a decision as to what the appropriate outcome is. 

Next steps

If you are struggling to reach an agreement between you, you should take legal advice from a specialist family lawyer.  They will consider your specific circumstances in detail and recommend an appropriate way forward.

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