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 parents with the care of the children 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, the number of children and how their time is spent between the parents. Information about the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) is available on the GOV.UK website.
How COVID-19 impacts child maintenance
Many parents are justifiably concerned regarding their income position. Many employees have been furloughed, made redundant and in some cases 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 a paying parent 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 the other parent’s income resumes. If no agreement can be reached then contact the Child Maintenance Service who will be able to write to the other parent and carry out an assessment of the amount that should be paid.
If the CMS is already involved, it is important to speak to them directly explaining your circumstances so that they may reassess the other parent’s liability if relevant or to help you with enforcement of the amount that should be paid. 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 the other parent is still able to pay but is refusing, the CMS can take steps to enforce the payment such as taking money directly from their earnings or their bank.
If the other parent 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. The other parent can also apply to the court for a downward variation of the payments i.e. pay less than they currently do.
It would be sensible to take legal advice before making any application to make sure that this is the best way forward in your circumstances. Reaching a temporary agreement with the other parent 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 the other parent 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 the other parent is not possible, consider whether it may help to arrange a meeting with a family mediator to try and agree a temporary solution.
What if I want to reduce child maintenance payments?
On the other hand, if you are the paying parent and your income has reduced you may need to reduce the child maintenance that you pay. If you have an informal agreement with the other parent you should be open with them about your situation and try to agree a solution, perhaps with the help of a mediator. If the CMS is involved, it is important to inform them of your change of circumstances, such as losing your job, so that they may revise their calculations. If you are paying in accordance with a court order, depending upon your circumstances, you could apply to the court for a downward variation of the payments but it is recommended that you discuss the options with a solicitor before proceeding
If you would like to discuss any of the matters raised above, please contact Lisa Cornish or Georgia Butterworth or another member of Birketts' Family Law 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 July 2021.