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If you owe child maintenance

This advice applies to England

You can be chased for unpaid child maintenance by your child’s other parent or by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

What you can do if you owe child maintenance depends on how you pay it. You might:

  • pay it direct to the other parent 

  • have it collected by the CMS and paid to the other parent

In either case, you should first check the amount you’re being asked to pay is correct. 

The payments you owe are called ‘arrears’. If you don’t pay the arrears, the CMS can take steps to get the money from you. 

If your child’s other parent is chasing you for arrears

It’s best to talk to them first if you can. 

If you disagree with how much they say you owe, ask them to show how they’ve calculated the amount. If they’re claiming you missed some payments and you disagree, you’ll need to prove you made them. For example, you could show bank statements which list the payments you made. 

If you agree with the amount but can’t afford to pay, try to agree a repayment plan with the other parent. You can check how much you could afford to pay

If you arranged maintenance directly with the other parent and can’t agree a repayment plan with them, they could ask the CMS to collect maintenance instead. The CMS can’t make you pay any arrears under the arrangement you had with the other parent.  

If the CMS are chasing you for arrears

The CMS will chase you for arrears if you pay maintenance:

  • by Direct Pay and the other parent has told them you’ve missed payments

  • by Collect and Pay

The CMS will write to tell you what you owe. This is called an ‘arrears notice’. It should include a list of the payments you’ve made. If it doesn’t, ask the CMS for one. 

If you disagree with the amount of arrears, check the amount the CMS say you owe. If they haven’t taken account of payments you’ve made, send them evidence you made the payments. For example, you could send a copy of your bank statements. 

You should also ask them not to enforce the arrears while you’re challenging the amount. 

If you agree the amount is correct but can’t afford to pay, try to agree a repayment plan with the CMS. You can check how much you could afford to pay. You should send the CMS details of your income and expenses and explain how much you can afford to pay. Remember that you’ll need to keep paying maintenance at the same time as paying off the arrears in a reasonable time. 

You can write to the CMS or call them.

If you write, keep a copy of your letter. 

If you call, make a note of when you called, who you spoke to and what they said. Follow your call up with a letter so you have a written record of what was said. You might need this if there’s a dispute in the future.

Child Maintenance Service
Child Maintenance Service 21
Mail Handling Site A
Wolverhampton
WV98 2BU

Telephone: 0800 171 2345
Textphone: 0800 232 1975
Monday to Friday, 8am to 7.30pm
Saturday, 9am to 4.30pm
Calls are free from mobiles and landlines.

Making an offer to clear your arrears

You can offer to clear the arrears with a single payment that’s less than the full amount you owe. 

This is known as a ‘part payment in full and final settlement’. 

It will only clear the arrears - if your child still qualifies for maintenance, you’ll have to keep making those regular payments.

Your child’s other parent and the CMS will have to agree to your offer of a part payment. If the other parent agrees to it, they can’t change their mind later. The CMS won’t agree if they think you can afford to pay the arrears in full.

If both parents and the CMS agree to a part payment, the CMS will write to confirm how and when the part payment should be made. 

If you don’t pay, the CMS can cancel the agreement and try to get the arrears back in other ways.

If you don’t pay the arrears

The CMS can take action against you to make you pay. This is called ‘enforcement action’. 

If you’re an employee, the CMS can try to take money from your wages.

If you’re not an employee, they can try to take money from your bank or building society account. They might do this if you’re self-employed or retired. They can take either:

  • regular payments
  • a one-off amount - known as a ‘lump sum’

The CMS can take money from business, partnership or joint accounts. 

If the CMS can’t recover the arrears from your wages or bank account, they can ask the court for a ‘liability order’. They’ll then be able to get money to pay the arrears by:

  • asking bailiffs to take things from you and sell them 
  • getting a court order to force you to sell your home

If that still doesn’t clear the arrears, the CMS can ask a court to consider: 

  • taking away your driving licence or passport

  • sending you to prison

If the CMS take money from your wages

This means the CMS have made a ‘deduction from earnings order’. You might get one if you’re an employee and either:

  • you’re in arrears and haven’t been able to agree a repayment plan with the CMS

  • you haven’t kept to an agreement to pay off your arrears

The CMS will usually add an enforcement fee of £50 to what you owe. In some situations you won’t have have to pay another fee, like if they’re trying to impose more than one order because you have more than one job or have recently changed jobs. You’ll only have to pay one fee.

Talk to an adviser if you’re not sure if you have to pay it. 

You’ll get an arrears notice from the CMS before they make the order. If you don’t want them to make it, try to agree a repayment plan with them. 

The CMS might agree not to make the order if you’ve paid regularly in the past and agree to set up a direct debit.

The CMS will make the order if you don’t respond to the notice or you can’t agree a repayment arrangement with them. 

The CMS will send a copy of the order to you and your employer. It will say:

  • how much you owe

  • how much your employer should deduct each time you get paid

The CMS can’t take more than 40% of your net income. Your net income is the money left after you've paid tax and National Insurance.

Your employer can charge you up to £1 for each deduction they make. They can be prosecuted if they don’t deduct the arrears and pay them to the CMS. 

If you want to get the order cancelled

The CMS might cancel a deduction from earnings order in certain circumstances, for example, if:

  • it’s not working - like if you keep changing jobs or your earnings are so low they can’t make a deduction

  • there’s a better  way of collecting the payments - like taking money from your bank account

  • you agree a different way to pay with the CMS and they think it’s reasonable to cancel the order

If you’re unhappy about a deduction from earnings order, you should:

  • offer to make reasonable repayments

  • keep up with regular maintenance payments

The CMS aren’t likely to accept your offer to repay the arrears if you haven’t kept up regular payments in the past. 

If you think the deductions are too high

You can ask for more time to repay the arrears if you can show the deductions are too high. You need to tell the CMS about the effects that level of deductions is having on you and any  child you’re responsible for. For example, you might not be able to afford to visit them any more. 

If the CMS won’t take this into account, talk to an adviser.

If your maintenance payments are reduced because your circumstances change

The CMS must change the deduction from earnings order if the amount of maintenance you have to pay has gone down because, for example:

  • your wages have gone down by 25% or more

  • you have a child with your new partner

Make sure you tell the CMS about changes like these and ask them to review your deduction from earnings order.

Appealing against an order

You might also be able to appeal against a deduction from earnings order. You must appeal to the court within 28 days of the date on the order. 

You can only appeal in limited cases - an adviser can help you understand when you can. 

You should talk to an adviser if you want to appeal. 

If you change your job

You must tell the CMS within 7 days or you could be fined. The CMS can ask you for more details of your new job. You must tell them:

  • the name and address of your employer

  • how much you’ll earn

  • your place of work

  • the type of work you'll be doing

  • your payroll number - you can find this on your payslip

If you leave your job but don’t go straight to another one, the deduction from earnings order will stop temporarily. This is called ‘lapsing’. The order can start again when you get another job.

If your employer goes out of business

You should talk to an adviser

 If you’ve paid all the arrears

The deduction from earnings order won’t necessarily stop. It can continue and be adjusted to cover your ongoing maintenance payments.

If the CMS make regular deductions from your account

The CMS will have made a ‘regular deduction order’. This means the CMS can tell your bank or building society to deduct money from your account at regular intervals to pay off the arrears. 

The CMS can use this order to collect current maintenance payments, arrears or both. They’ll usually also add an enforcement fee of £50 to what you owe. In some situations you won’t have to pay that fee, like if you’ve changed bank account. 

Talk to an adviser if you’re not sure if you have to pay it. 

The CMS can take money from your account either monthly or weekly. The bank or building society can charge you up to £10 for each deduction they make. 

You must be left with at least 60% of your net weekly income. Your net income is the money left after you've paid tax and National Insurance. 

If you’re paying the default rate of maintenance, the deduction won’t be more than £80 per week. You’ll be on that rate if the CMS didn’t have enough information to calculate how much you should pay. 

There won’t be any deduction if it would mean your account will have less than:

  • £40 for a monthly order

  • £10 for a weekly order

 

Asking for a review or appeal

You can ask the CMS for a review of a regular deduction order at any time. You might want to ask for a review because:

  • your gross weekly income has dropped - that’s your income before tax and national insurance have been deducted

  • the amount of child maintenance you pay has changed

You can also appeal to a court against:

  • a regular deduction order

  • any decision the CMS make after you’ve applied for a review of the order

You can find the appeal form and guidance on how to fill it in on GOV.UK.

Check when a regular deduction order might stop

It will stop when you pay off all the arrears. 

Your regular deduction order might ‘lapse’. That means it will stop temporarily if the CMS think it’s reasonable to do that and one of the following happens:

  • there’s no money in your account

  • you’ve agreed to pay another way

  • if the CMS were making deductions from a joint account, they’re satisfied you’ve stopped putting money into that account 

If your order has lapsed, the CMS can start it again if one of the following happens:

  • you don’t keep to the agreement to pay another way

  • there’s now enough money in the account

  • you start putting money into the joint account again

The CMS might decide to end the order - it’s called ‘discharging the order’. The CMS can discharge it in one of the following situations:

  • you’ve paid all the arrears

  • you’ve closed the bank account used

  • the order has lapsed for more than 6 months 

  • you die

If you still owe arrears, the CMS might take other steps to recover the money - like taking a sum of money from your account or getting a court order.

If the CMS take a single payment from your bank or building society account

The CMS will have made a ‘lump sum deduction order’. 

They’ll also add an enforcement fee of £200 to what you owe. In some situations you won’t have to pay another fee, like if they’re trying to get more than one order because you have more than one bank account or have changed bank account. You’ll only have to pay one fee. 

Talk to an adviser if you’re not sure if you have to pay it. 

Before they made the order, the CMS will have sent you an ‘interim order’ saying how much they want to take. This is temporary - you’ll have a chance to get the order changed before it’s made final.

You have 14 days to tell the CMS:

  • why they shouldn’t make the final order

  • about any changes you think should be made to the interim order

For example, you could say you need the money for essential items. You’ll need to explain what those items are - like replacing a washing machine or paying mortgage arrears. 

The CMS will also send a copy of the interim order to your bank or building society. This means you won’t be able to use the amount of money set out in the order. You’ll still be able to use any money over that amount.

The CMS will make a final order after either:

  • considering your views

  • 16 days, if you don’t reply

Your bank or building society will then deduct the money and transfer it to the CMS after 21 days. They can charge you £55 for making the deduction. 

During this 21-day period, you and anyone affected by the order can appeal to the court. 

You can talk to an adviser if you want to appeal. 

If you don’t have enough money in your account

You won’t get a lump sum deduction order if you have less than £100 in your account but the order will stay in place. That means that if you pay any money into the account in the future, it can be deducted to pay towards the arrears.

If you have more than £100 in your account but not enough for the CMS to take the whole amount, they can take up to £110.

Check when a lump sum deduction order ends

The CMS will end the lump sum deduction order if:

  • you’ve closed the account named in the order

  • you’ve paid the arrears in full

  • there’s never enough money in the account for them to make a deduction

If you still owe arrears, the CMS might take other steps to recover the money - like going to court.

If the CMS told you they're getting a liability order against you

You’ll get a letter from the CMS saying:

  • how much money you owe 

  • you should agree a repayment arrangement with the CMS

If you don’t reply within 14 days, you’ll get a second letter telling you the CMS might apply for a liability order in the next 7 days. They will usually also add an enforcement fee of £300 to what you owe. You won’t have to pay the fee if the liability order isn’t made. 

Talk to an adviser if you’re not sure if you have to pay it. 

The CMS have to go to court to get a liability order. You’ll be told the time and date of the court hearing.

You can make a repayment offer and ask the CMS not to take court action. The offer has to be reasonable. What’s reasonable will depend on your circumstances. Child maintenance payments are a priority debt so you should pay them before paying a credit card debt, for example. You can check what are priority debts.

Even if you make a repayment offer, the CMS don’t have to accept it - they might decide to ask for a liability order anyway. 

If you need help working out how much you can afford to pay, you can use our budgeting tool or talk to an adviser.

Attending the court hearing

Coronavirus - if the CMS have sent you a letter about a court hearing

You should call the CMS straight away  - you can find their phone number in your welcome pack or at the top of any letter from them.

If your income has dropped because of coronavirus, you should ask them to delay the court hearing.

If they say the court hearing will still go ahead, it will happen over the phone or by video call - these are sometimes called ‘remote hearings’. 

Check how to prepare for a remote hearing.

You should go to the hearing. If you think the CMS haven’t taken into account payments you’ve made, you’ll need to bring proof you’ve made them. 

The court can’t review the calculation. It can still make a liability order if you challenge the amount you owe. You could ask the court to adjourn the hearing to give you time to ask for a review or appeal against the CMS calculation. The court might agree if you’ve already:

  • paid off some of the arrears

  • appealed against the assessment

If the CMS get a liability order

The CMS can take further action to make you pay off the arrears.

They can ask bailiffs to take your goods away and sell them.

 The CMS can also apply to court to secure the debt on your home, if you own it - this is called a ‘charging order’. They can then get an order to make you sell it and will recover the arrears from the sale. 

You shouldn’t try to avoid paying arrears by selling or transferring property. This could be your home, or it could be other things you own - for example, a car.  

The CMS can apply for an order to cancel the sale or transfer. For example, if you transfer your house to your new partner so the CMS can’t sell it to clear your arrears, they can apply to have this transfer cancelled. 

If you want to appeal against a liability order 

You can’t appeal against a liability order but you can ask for it to be ‘set aside’ if you think the CMS have made a mistake. 

You can talk to an adviser.

If the CMS use bailiffs

You don’t have to let the bailiffs into your home. You can read more about stopping bailiffs.

You should negotiate repayment arrangements direct with the bailiffs. The CMS will tell the bailiffs not to take further action if you pay off the arrears.

If the CMS get a charging order

Once the CMS have a liability order, they can register the order as a county court judgment.  If they do, that will make it harder for you to get credit. 

Once the CMS have registered the liability order, they can apply for a charging order. This means your arrears are a debt which is secured on your home. You can read more about charging orders

If the CMS have a charging order and you still don’t pay all the arrears, they can apply for an order to sell your home. This is called an ‘order for sale’. 

You should talk to an adviser if this happens. 

If the CMS take you to court because you still owe maintenance

Coronavirus - if the CMS have sent you a letter about a court hearing

You should call the CMS straight away  - you can find their phone number in your welcome pack or at the top of any letter from them.

If your income has dropped because of coronavirus, you should ask them to delay the court hearing.

If they say the court hearing will still go ahead, it will happen over the phone or by video call - these are sometimes called ‘remote hearings’. 

Check how to prepare for a remote hearing.


If the CMS haven’t been able to recover the arrears in any other way, they can ask a court to take your driving licence or passport away. If those steps aren’t appropriate, they can ask the court to send you to prison unless you’re under 18.

You’ll get a notice telling you to attend a court hearing. The notice will set out how much you owe and the date and time of the hearing. 

You must go to the hearing. If you don’t go, the court could issue a warrant for you to be arrested.

At the hearing, the court will ask you:

  • about your financial circumstances

  • if you've deliberately refused or neglected to pay maintenance

  • if you need a driving licence or a passport for work 

If you’re facing this type of court action, you should talk to an adviser.


If you need to drive or travel abroad for work

Make sure you take to the hearing: 

  • full details of your financial situation including reasons why you haven’t paid

  • proof you need a driving licence - like a letter from your employer saying you might lose your job if you can't drive

  • proof you need a passport - for example if you’re a lorry driver and travel into Europe

The court will consider all the circumstances of the case. If they decide you've deliberately not paid maintenance, they can stop you from having or getting a driving licence or a passport for up to 2 years.

The court can decide to suspend the order. That means you’ll get to keep your licence or passport and won’t be sent to prison. They could do this for example, on condition you pay a set amount towards the arrears until they're paid off. If you don’t keep to this arrangement, the order will be reinstated - so you could then lose your licence or passport or be sent to prison. 

If you’re sent to prison

The court can send you to prison for up to 6 weeks if it doesn’t think you should be disqualified from driving or stopped from using your passport. It can only do this if you're aged 18 or over. 

The order to send you to prison can be suspended, so it might not start immediately. 

You’ll still have to pay the arrears after your prison sentence ends. The CMS can take further action if your circumstances change - like if you get a job and they can take money from your wages.  

If you want to appeal

You can appeal against the court order - you'll need to get advice from a solicitor to do this. 

If you can pay off the arrears

You can apply to get your driving licence or passport back or to be released from prison if you pay off all the amounts in the order. You should tell the court you’ve paid off the arrears.

If you pay back part of the arrears, you’ll lose your licence or passport or be imprisoned for a shorter period. How much shorter will depend on how much you’ve paid off.

If you're in prison, ask the CMS or the prison authorities who you should pay off the arrears to. 

If the CMS tell you they’re cancelling the arrears 

The CMS can cancel the payments you owe. This is called ‘writing off the arrears’. It means you don’t have to pay them anymore. 

The CMS might write off arrears if:

  • the person getting maintenance tells the CMS they don’t want them to collect the arrears

  • the person getting maintenance has died

  • the CMS have told you they’ve suspended the arrears and won’t take action to recover them

You’ll get a notice from the CMS if they want to write off arrears. The notice will set out:

  • the amount of arrears

  • when the arrears became due

They’ll ask you and the parent who’s owed maintenance why each of you think the arrears should or shouldn’t be written off. You’ll have 30 days to reply. The CMS will take your views into account. You can’t appeal if they decide not to write off the arrears but you can make a complaint.

If you have arrears under the Child Support Agency schemes 

You might have arrears under the 1993 or 2003 child maintenance schemes. These schemes used to be managed by the Child Support Agency. You might not have to pay arrears under these schemes. If this applies, the CMS will write to you. 

If you owe arrears under the 1993 or 2003 child maintenance schemes, you can talk to an adviser

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