Can I enforce child maintenance payments during the COVID-19 crisis?

06 April 2020

A common theme emerging from this crisis is that ex-partners are reducing child maintenance payments or even stopping them all together. Single parents will be concerned as to how this affects them and their children during this period. Communication and understanding will be vital in ensuring that parents work together for the benefit of the children.

What is child maintenance?

Child maintenance is a plan in place under either an informal arrangement between parents, a calculation made by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) or an existing court order. It ensures single parents are supported financially and both parents are taking responsibility for bringing up their children. It is usually calculated according to the CMS formula which calculates maintenance based upon a set percentage of the paying parent’s gross income.

How COVID-19 impacts child maintenance

Many parents are justifiably concerned regarding their income position. Employees are being furloughed, made redundant and in some cases being dismissed. Self-employed parents who are unable to work are also suffering financially. It is clear that, for some, ability to pay child maintenance will be reduced.

However, if your ex-partner is still receiving full pay, they must continue to make payments.

What you can do now

If you have an informal agreement with the other parent and they tell you they cannot pay child maintenance due to an income reduction, it will be hard to enforce this. Open a line of communication and agree together the best solution which may be to receive less maintenance in the interim and return to normal payments when your ex-partner’s income resumes.

If the CMS is involved, it is important to speak to them directly explaining your circumstances so that they may reassess your ex-partner’s liability. The current stance is that if the income of the paying parent has reduced by 25% as a result of COVID-19, the CMS will adjust any CMS calculation if that change is reported to them. Those who receive the 80% furlough payment will be expected to pay maintenance in full. If your ex-partner is still able to pay but is refusing, the CMS can take steps such as taking money directly from their earnings or their bank.

If your ex-partner is paying in accordance with a court order, they will be in breach of this order if they do not pay. If they maintain they cannot pay but you believe otherwise, enforcement action may be taken. You may be able to apply to the court to enforce or vary the court order depending on your circumstances. It would be sensible to take legal advice before making any application.

However, if child maintenance arrears accumulate due to genuine financial hardship, the court may dismiss these arrears altogether. Your ex-partner can also apply to the court for a downward variation of the payments i.e. pay less than they currently do.

Reaching a temporary agreement with your ex-partner is a practical and positive step. You should record this agreement in writing. This agreement could be converted into a court order if you would like a more formal arrangement in place.

It is understandably difficult if you rely on a regular monthly payment and this ceases or reduces. However, if your ex-partner has lost their job or is facing a significant reduction in income it is important to be sensitive to that fact and reach an agreement together. If communication with your ex-partner is not possible, consider whether it may help to arrange a meeting with a family mediator to try and agree a temporary solution.

If you would like to discuss any of the matters raised above, please contact Caragh Hargreaves or a member of Birketts' Family Team.

The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at April 2020.