Parents do not have to use the Child Support Agency or Child Maintenance Service to arrange child maintenance. They are free to choose the best child maintenance arrangement to suit their family’s needs. In most cases, this will be a family-based arrangement. More than half a million British families now have an arrangement in place that they’ve set up between themselves.
The Government is currently reforming the child maintenance system. The reforms are designed to encourage separated parents to collaborate and to make family-based child maintenance arrangements.
The Child Support Agency’s statutory schemes are also being phased out. A new statutory service, called the Child Maintenance Service, has been introduced and from 25 November 2013 it has been processing all new applications to its statutory scheme. The Child Maintenance Service is available for those parents who are unable to make a family-based arrangement.
The Child Support Agency has stopped taking new applications into the statutory schemes it runs. However, it will continue to manage existing cases on the 1993 and 2003 schemes until they are phased out. There are further details about this below.
The Government defines child maintenance as 'regular, reliable financial support that helps towards a child’s everyday living costs'. In most cases, this means that the parent who does not have main day-to-day care of the child (the paying parent) pays child maintenance to the parent who does have main day-to-day care (the receiving parent). In some cases, this person can be a grandparent or guardian.
However, child maintenance doesn’t just have to be about money and it doesn’t have to mean a statutory arrangement (i.e. through the Child Support Agency or Child Maintenance Service). It can be about what both parents agree between themselves.
Family-based arrangements are agreements between both parents about who will provide what for a child. They don’t have to be just about exchanging money – the paying parent could, for example, agree to provide school uniforms.
The main benefits of family-based arrangements are that they’re quick and easy to set up. They’re also completely private, meaning that no-one else needs to get involved in a family’s arrangements. Research has shown that separated parents are twice as likely to be happy with a family-based arrangement as they are with a statutory arrangement.
If separated parents can’t make a family-based arrangement work, or if they’ve tried to set one up and it hasn’t worked, they do have other options.
Direct Pay (known as Maintenance Direct in Child Support Agency arrangements) is a payment option offered by the Child Maintenance Service that enables parents to keep control of making and receiving payments. The statutory service works out the payment amounts for parents but won’t get involved in other areas, like collecting the payments and enforcement, unless a parent asks them to. If a parent wants the Child Maintenance Service to get involved in enforcing payments, then the parent needs to move to a Collect & Pay arrangement. Direct Paycan be a good option for parents who have trouble agreeing or talking about how much child maintenance payments should be.
Collect & Pay
Collect & Pay (known as ‘the calculation and collection service’ in Child Support Agency cases) is a calculation, collection, payment and enforcement service for parents who can’t make a family-based arrangement work. If a parent applies to the Child Support Agency or Child Maintenance Service for this, they will gather information from both parents and use it to work out how much child maintenance the parent without the main day-to-day care of the child will need to pay to the other parent. If payments aren’t made on time, a range of enforcement actions can be taken to collect them.
From Spring 2014 the Government is going to introduce fees and charges for using the Child Maintenance Service. Further details on this are below.
In England and Wales, a consent order is an order made by a court that makes an agreement between two parties legally binding. For child maintenance, courts can make a consent order which says that the parent without the main day-to-day care of the child must keep to the child maintenance payments they have agreed, either collaboratively between themselves or through solicitors. Putting a consent order in place does involve legal costs.
Minutes of Agreement
In Scotland, parents can register a Minute of Agreement in the Books of Council and Session held by Registers of Scotland. After they’ve made their family-based arrangement - with a solicitor’s help, if needed – parents can make it a contract called a Minute of Agreement. They can then register this for preservation and execution to make it legally binding and enforceable.
It’s important to note that parents cannot set up a statutory child maintenance arrangement within 12 months of setting up a consent order or Minute of Agreement, but they can do so after this period.