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Child maintenance - where to start

Both parents are legally responsible for the financial costs of bringing up their children. If you split up, and you’re the parent who doesn’t have the main day-to-day care of the children, you may have to pay money to the person looking after the children. This is called child maintenance. Sometimes it's also called child support.

Child maintenance usually takes the form of regular financial payments towards the child's everyday living costs. Depending on your circumstances, you can either arrange this yourselves or use a government scheme. If your situation is complicated, you may need to get a court order.

This page tells you more about the choices you have and where to get more help.

In Northern Ireland, you can arrange maintenance through the Northern Ireland Child Maintenance Service.

If you want more information about the different ways you can arrange child maintenance, go to Child Maintenance Choices at www.nidirect.gov.uk.

Therefore, when the page refers to the Child Support Agency (CSA) or the Child Maintenance Service (CMS), in Northern Ireland this means the Northern Ireland Child Maintenance Service. When the page refers to Child Maintenance Options, in Northern Ireland this means Child Maintenance Choices.

How do you arrange child maintenance?

You can arrange child maintenance in the following ways:

  • a family-based child maintenance arrangement
  • a government scheme
  • a court order.

Family-based child maintenance arrangements

A family-based arrangement is usually the quickest and easiest way to arrange child maintenance if you can agree. A family-based arrangement is not usually legally binding. So if the agreed payments aren’t made, you can’t go to court to get the other parent to pay. However, if the arrangement breaks down, you still have the option to use a government scheme for an enforceable agreement. This means that the parent who has to pay maintenance can be made to pay it.

If you can’t agree on a family-based arrangement

Sometimes it's not possible to make a family-based arrangement. Perhaps because there's been domestic violence or abuse or because you have different ideas about how much money is needed to bring up children. Or maybe your family-based arrangement has broken down. In these cases, you may want to try using a government scheme.

Government schemes

There are three government schemes for arranging child maintenance. Their rules are based on law so they are sometimes known as statutory schemes.

The 2012 Scheme

The Child Maintenance Service (CMS) runs a statutory scheme called the 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme. This is open to all new applicants who are unable to make a family-based arrangement. In England, Wales and Scotland, you have to pay a fee to apply to the 2012 Scheme.

The 1993 and 2003 Schemes

The Child Support Agency (CSA) runs two statutory schemes:

  • the 1993 Scheme for cases opened before 3 March 2003
  • the 2003 Scheme for cases opened on or after 3 March 2003.

The Child Support Agency has stopped taking new applications into the 1993 and 2003 Schemes. However, it will continue to manage existing cases on these schemes until they are phased out.

Court orders for maintenance

The CMS deals with all new applications for child maintenance. However, a court can deal with new applications for child maintenance in some situations.

For example:

  • you can’t apply to the CMS because your ex-partner lives outside the UK
  • you have extra expenses which the CMS don’t take into account when making a maintenance calculation. For example, this would cover expenses to cover education or the extra costs of a child's disability
  • your ex-partner has a very high income and you want more maintenance than would be awarded under the CMS calculation.

You'll need expert advice about what to do if your partner lives outside the UK, and how to apply to court for maintenance.

Once a court order is in place, the court can force a parent to pay maintenance if they fail to pay what's been agreed in the order.

Will child maintenance affect your benefits?

If you get child maintenance

Child maintenance is not counted as income for means-tested benefits such as Income Support, income-based Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA) and Housing Benefit.

This means if you're getting maintenance you won’t get less money in these benefits. Other benefits which aren’t means-tested won’t be affected either.

If you have to pay maintenance

If you’re the parent who has to pay maintenance, and you get certain benefits, you'll have to pay £7 a week out of your benefits if the CMS or CSA make the maintenance arrangement.

If you make a family-based arrangement, you and the other parent can agree what you should pay out of your benefits.

Will child maintenance affect your tax?

If you get child maintenance

You won't have to pay any tax on child maintenance payments you receive.

If you have to pay child maintenance

You can’t usually get any tax relief on the payments you make in child maintenance. However, if you or the person getting maintenance was born before 6 April 1935, you may be able to claim tax relief in some circumstances.

Legal help is not available to cover the costs of going to court just to arrange child maintenance. You might get legal help for some disputes involving children and for family mediation.

Next steps

Other useful information

The government’s Child Maintenance Options Service can provide information about your options. They also provide forms, leaflets and a maintenance calculator to help you get started.

  • Child Maintenance Options Service: www.cmoptions.org
  • You can get more information about tax relief on maintenance payments on the HMRC website: www.hmrc.gov.uk

Get help with bills and budgeting

If you're trying to cut your spending, or are having problems with your outgoings, you could get help with bills. You could also use our budgeting tool to see exactly where your money goes each month.

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