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Child maintenance - negotiating repayments when you owe maintenance

Both parents are legally responsible for the financial costs of bringing up the children. If you split up, usually the parent who doesn't have day-to-day care of the children is responsible for paying maintenance.

If the Child Support Agency (CSA) or the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) arranged maintenance for you and you fall behind with your maintenance payments, you will have to find a way of paying back the arrears. If you don't do this, CSA or the CMS could take enforcement action against you to try and make you pay back what you owe.

This page tells you what happens if you owe maintenance under the 1993, 2003 or 2012 Child Maintenance Schemes and you want to negotiate a repayment schedule with the either CSA or the CMS.

Negotiating a repayment schedule with the CSA or CMS

If you get into arrears, the CSA or CMS may sometimes negotiate a repayment schedule with you. They aim to collect all the arrears within two years and can ask you pay up to 40 per cent of your income, depending on your circumstances and other financial commitments.

They will consider:

  • the needs of you and any new family
  • the needs of the other parent and the children receiving maintenance
  • whether the other parent has told the CSA or CMS they're likely to suffer financial hardship if you don't pay.

Be realistic when you work out how much you can afford to pay back. While you’re negotiating a repayment schedule, keep on paying what you can.

If you're struggling financially, get some independent help to prepare a financial statement which you can use to show what you can afford to pay. If you have other debts, you may have to re-negotiate repayments with your creditors to find money to pay off the maintenance arrears.

The other parent will be told you’ve asked for a repayment schedule. They can object to the new arrangement if they think it isn’t reasonable.

A Citizens Advice Bureau adviser, or other representative, could help you negotiate with the CSA or CMS. You'll have to give them written permission before they can discuss your case with the CSA or CMS.

Part-payment of arrears in full and final settlement

If you can’t pay all the arrears, you could offer to pay a lump sum in full and final settlement. This means that once you’ve paid the lump sum, you no longer have any legal obligation to pay off the rest of the arrears.

The other parent has to agree to this first. If they agree, they can’t change their minds later and try and get the arrears back.

The CSA or CMS will investigate your offer before putting it to the other parent. If they don’t think it's reasonable, they won’t accept it and won’t tell the other parent.

If the CSA or CMS thinks you can pay and there’s a reasonable chance of getting back all the arrears, they'll insist you pay the full amount.

Once the arrangement has been agreed by the CSA or CMS, and both of you, the CSA or CMS will confirm it in writing and give details of how and when you should pay the lump sum. If you don’t pay as agreed, the CSA or CMS could cancel the agreement and try to get the arrears back in other ways.

Writing off arrears you owe

The CSA or CMS can write off arrears in rare cases. Writing off arrears means they no longer have to be paid. Reasons include:

  • the other parent makes it clear to the CSA or CMS they don’t want the arrears to be collected
  • the arrears date back to an interim maintenance agreement made between April 1993 and April 1995
  • the CSA or CMS has told you that arrears have been permanently suspended.

Arrears can also be written off if you die and the arrears can’t be recovered from your estate. Or if you don't leave any assets from which the arrears can be recovered.

How the CSA or CMS makes its decision to write off arrears

The CSA or CMS must consider all the circumstances of the case and the welfare of the children involved. They'll send you both a notice, setting out:

  • the amount of arrears
  • when the arrears became due
  • why they think it would be best to write off the arrears
  • the fact that a decision to write off arrears is final.

They'll also ask you why you think the arrears should be written off. You have 14 days to reply. Your views will be considered, but if the CSA or CMS decides not to write off the arrears, you can’t appeal against their decision.

Offsetting money you owe

Sometimes, if there's been a change of circumstances, the CSA or CMS can offset maintenance owed between parents. Offsetting payments means maintenance you owe could be reduced or written off to compensate for the money you're owed under the new arrangement.

Offsetting payments is most likely to happen in cases where a child moves from the care of one parent to the other. Or if your shared care arrangements change and you now have to pay less maintenance.

If you don't clear the arrears

If you still have arrears of £1,000 or more after two years, the CSA may consider taking further enforcement action. This can include taking money from your wages, benefits or bank or building society account.

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