On this page, you can learn more about:
- the rules regarding child maintenance
- the different ways to arrange it
- how it’s calculated and paid
Click a link below to jump to the relevant section:
- What is child maintenance?
- How is child maintenance arranged?
- Family-based child maintenance arrangement
- The 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme—a government scheme
- Court order
- How is child maintenance calculated?
- How is child maintenance paid?
What is child maintenance?
Child maintenance is a regular financial contribution made to provide help with a child’s living costs. It covers things like food, clothes, school items and other everyday necessities.
When parents of a child separate, the parent who doesn’t look after the child from day to day must support the other parent by paying child maintenance, whether they see the child or not. Paying child maintenance is a legal responsibility, although one separate from parental responsibility.
Child maintenance must be paid for any child:
- under the age of 16
- under the age of 20 if in full-time non-advanced education (e.g. A-levels or equivalent)
- aged 16 or 17 who is no longer in full-time education but has registered for work or training with a careers service
How is child maintenance arranged?
There are three ways to arrange child maintenance.
- Family-based child maintenance arrangement
- The 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme—a government scheme
- Court order
We explain each option below.
Family-based child maintenance arrangement
The simplest way is for the two parents to agree between themselves how child maintenance will be paid. This is known as a family-based child maintenance arrangement.
However, such an arrangement isn’t legally binding, meaning that there’s no legal route for one parent to challenge the other if they’ve failed to maintain their payments.
If the two parents can’t agree, or if they do agree but the arrangement breaks down later, there’s still the option to use a government scheme . This gives the paying parent a legal duty to keep to the agreement.
The table below shows the benefits and drawbacks of making a family-based child maintenance arrangement.
|Pros and cons of making a family-based child maintenance arrangement|
What should the arrangement include?
A family-based child maintenance arrangement should set out the following:
- The amount of maintenance to be paid
This means considering the income of the paying parent and deciding on a figure they can afford.
There are several online calculators that parents can use to determine how much maintenance is realistic in their situation. These include the Child Maintenance Options calculator and the UK government’s child maintenance calculator.
Parents might agree a cash sum or consider payments ‘in kind’—where the paying parent covers costs for food, clothes, school uniforms, school trips and so on rather than giving money.
- How often the payments will be made
This will depend on circumstances, but it might be once a week, once a month or four times a year, for example. Some parents organise the payments to coincide with their wages or benefits entering their bank account.
- When the payments will be made
This might be every Monday, every Friday, on the last working day of the month—whenever is most suitable.
- How the payments will be made
A parent can make their payments by cash, cheque or standing order. Standing orders are useful as, once set up, they ensure payments are made in full and on time. If they are set up with a clear reference as to what the money is for, they also act as proof that the payment has been made.
When it comes to the above considerations, there aren’t any rules or conditions. It’s completely up to the two parents to decide, although keeping a written record of the arrangement is advised.
What happens if circumstances change?
A situation may arise that means the paying parent isn’t able to maintain their payments—for example, if:
- they lose their job
- their living arrangements change
- they have a baby with a new partner
If this happens, they may need to renegotiate the agreement.
Although the paying parent has no obligation to tell the receiving parent about any change in circumstances, reviewing the arrangement as a matter of course—every 12 months, for example—is recommended. This helps avoid anything that might cause the arrangement to break down.
What if there is more than one child?
If the two parents have more than one child together, the arrangement will need to include all of the children. Parents who have children with more than one person will have to make separate arrangements with each of the other parents.
Is there help available with making a family-based child maintenance arrangement?
There are a number of sources of help for general advice on making a family-based arrangement or more specific advice on the law or financial matters.
- Child Maintenance Options
Child Maintenance Options is a free service set up by the government’s Department for Work & Pensions. It can provide impartial advice on anything related to making a family-based maintenance agreement and can direct parents to other organisations that specialise in helping with housing, employment and money issues.
Click here to visit the Child Maintenance Options website.
- Legal advice
Parents who are separating or have recently separated should understand their legal rights. Getting specialist legal advice from a family law solicitor can be extremely valuable in these situations.
Parents who are unable to come to an agreement on child maintenance may be able to seek the help of a mediator. This is an independent person who can provide information on issues relating to children and finances and facilitate a constructive discussion between parents who are in dispute.
Mediators aren’t trained to give legal advice, however, so if there is a breakdown in negotiations about child maintenance, you may have to refer your case to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).
Both parents must be willing to use the mediation service. Decisions made through mediation aren’t legally binding.
The 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme—a government scheme
The government’s Child Maintenance Service (CMS) runs a statutory scheme to help parents who are unable to make a family-based arrangement. This is called the 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme.
There are also two other schemes in operation—run by the Child Support Agency (CSA)—for existing cases that began before certain dates in the past. These, however, are closed to new applications.
- The 2003 Scheme—for parents whose cases were opened on or after 3 March 2003
- The 1993 Scheme—for parents whose cases were opened before 3 March 2003
The table below shows the benefits and drawbacks of using the 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme.
|Pros and cons of applying to the 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme|
Who is eligible for the scheme?
Parents who meet the following conditions will qualify for the scheme:
- They and their child all live in the UK
- The child is a “qualifying child” in terms of their age and circumstances
- One parent has day-to-day care of the child, while the other parent will pay maintenance (if someone else looks after the child from day to day, both parents may have to pay maintenance)
- They have no other maintenance arrangement in place
How do parents apply to the scheme?
The 2012 Child Maintenance Scheme has a specific application process. Parents can’t apply directly as they must first go through Child Maintenance Options, the advice service created by the Department for Work & Pensions. Its contact number is 0800 988 0988.
Child Maintenance Options will do what it can to help parents make a family-based agreement. It will only refer them to the CMS if such an agreement isn’t feasible.
The CMS will need as much information as possible about the parent responsible for paying maintenance. If the receiving parent doesn’t know the paying parent’s whereabouts, the CMS will try to trace them, using details it obtains from the person’s employer or organisations such as HM Revenue & Customs, the DVLA or a utility company.
When happens when they apply?
There’s a fee of £20 to make an application, although the CMS will waive this for any parent who is:
- a victim of domestic violence and has reported it to the police or a domestic violence organisation
- under the age of 19
Once it receives the application, the CMS will:
- work out how much child maintenance should be paid—see “How is child maintenance calculated?” below
- inform both parents, in writing, of that amount
- give both parents an updated calculation each year, using data from HM Revenue & Customs
- tell both parents how to arrange for the maintenance to be paid directly into the receiving parent’s bank account (known as “direct pay”—see “How is child maintenance paid?” below )
How long does the process take?
The application process should take around four weeks, although it may be longer if the CMS has to track down the parent responsible for making the payments.
Family-based maintenance agreements aren’t legally binding. The courts generally don’t have the ability to make orders about child maintenance so, when there’s a dispute, a party would need to make an application to the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).
Consent orders are used when parents are divorcing or dissolving a civil partnership and want a legal document to record the conditions of their settlement. If necessary, they can include details of how much child maintenance will be paid and how and when the payments will be made but only if they agree.
Although the CMS deals with most new applications for child maintenance, in some circumstances a court can handle an application instead. For example, if:
- the paying parent lives outside the UK, preventing the receiving parent from applying to the CMS
- the paying parent has a very high income and the receiving parent needs more maintenance than the maximum the CMS can award
How is child maintenance calculated?
The CMS approach is based on a specific formula and uses certain information to work out how much child maintenance a paying parent should pay. This includes:
- the paying parent’s gross weekly income
- the number of children the receiving parent has to look after—known as “qualifying children”
- the number of other children the paying parent supports financially—known as “relevant other children”
- whether the paying parent shares care of the children
The CMS doesn’t consider:
- the receiving parent’s income
- the specific amount the receiving parent feels they need to care for their children
Gross weekly income
When making its calculations, the CMS applies one of five rates, based on the paying parent’s gross weekly income. These rates are explained below .
The CMS uses the paying parent’s taxable gross yearly income (income before tax and national insurance but after pension contributions) as a basis. It also checks whether the paying parent is receiving benefits . It gets this information from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
It then converts the gross yearly figure into the weekly amount it needs to calculate child maintenance.
It makes adjustments if it learns, through information it obtains from HMRC, that the paying parent (or their partner) is supporting other children—whether or not the children live with them—via Child Benefit payments. The CMS reduces the gross weekly figure by a certain percentage, depending on how many children they financially support.
|Number of other children supported||Reduction to gross weekly income|
|1||12 per cent|
|2||16 per cent|
|3||19 per cent|
Child maintenance rates
Once it knows the paying parent’s gross weekly income, the CMS applies one of five rates to determine how much the parent should pay in child maintenance. The rates are shown in the table below.
|Parent’s gross weekly income||Rate applied||Weekly maintenance|
|Below £7||Nil rate||None|
|£7-£100, or if paying parent receives benefits||Flat rate||£7|
|£100.01–£199.99||Reduced rate||£7 for first £100 of income plus percentage of remaining income|
|£200–£3,000||Basic rate (including basic rate)||Percentage of first £800 of income plus percentage of remaining income over £800|
|Unknown or not provided||Default rate||£38 (1 child)
£51 (2 children)
£61 (3 or more children)
The CMS can only consider a gross weekly income of up to £3,000. If the paying parent’s income is higher than this, the receiving parent would have to apply to the court for extra maintenance. In this situation, the receiving parent should seek legal advice.
Most assessments fall within the basic rate , where gross yearly incomes are between £10,400 and £41,600. If the paying parent has additional income, a basic plus rate will apply.
Once the CMS applies a rate, the paying parent will pay the same amount from week to week. However, the CMS will review its assessment each year.
Gross weekly income: less than £7
If the CMS applies a nil rate, it means the paying parent doesn’t have to pay any child maintenance. This is either because the parent’s gross weekly income is less than £7, or they are:
- under 16
- aged 16 to 19 but have left school and registered for a certain type of government-approved training course
- aged 16 to 19 and in full-time non-advanced education (A-levels or equivalent)
- are 16 or 17 and receive Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, income related Employment and Support Allowance or Universal Credit calculated based on having no income (or are included in their partner’s claim for the same)
- in prison
- living in a care home or independent hospital and getting help with the fees
Gross weekly income: £7 to £100
The CMS applies a flat rate of £7 a week if the paying parent’s gross weekly income is less than £100, or they receive one of the following benefits or pensions:
- Pension Credit
- Income Support
- Jobseeker’s Allowance (income-based or contribution-based)
- Employment and Support Allowance (income-related or contributory)
- Universal Credit (calculated based on having no income)
- State Retirement Pension
- Carer’s Allowance
- Incapacity Benefit
Gross weekly income: more than £100 but less than £200
Under the reduced rate, the paying parent pays:
- £7 for the first £100 of their weekly income
- a percentage of their remaining income—based on how many children:
- the receiving parent looks after from day to day (“qualifying children”)
- the paying parent is responsible for (“relevant other children”)
The table below shows the percentages of remaining income the paying parent would pay in various circumstances.
|Reduced rate – percentages of remaining income|
|Number of relevant other children|
|None||One||Two||Three or more|
|Three or more||31%||26.4%||24.9%||23.8%|
Gross weekly income: £200 to £800 (basic), £800.01 to £3,000 (basic plus)
The CMS applies the basic rate when the paying parent has a gross weekly income of £200 or more. There is a “basic plus” rate for paying parents whose weekly income is more than £800 but no higher than £3,000.
As with the reduced rate, the amount of maintenance the paying parent will pay depends on the number of:
- relevant other children (those the paying parent supports financially)
- qualifying children (those the receiving parent looks after from day to day)
The number of relevant other children reduces the gross weekly income as follows:
|Number of relevant other children||Reduction to gross weekly income|
|One||11 per cent|
|Two||14 per cent|
|Three or more||16 per cent|
The number of qualifying children determines what percentage of the first £800 of remaining income the paying parent will pay as maintenance.
|Number of qualifying children||Percentage of first £800 of income to pay|
|One||12 per cent|
|Two||16 per cent|
|Three or more||19 per cent|
If the paying parent’s remaining gross weekly income is more than £800, they will also pay a percentage of whatever that additional amount might be. This might differ if the paying parent and receiving parent share care of the qualifying children.
|Number of qualifying children||Percentage of first £800 of income to pay|
|One||9 per cent|
|Two||12 per cent|
|Three or more||15 per cent|
Gross weekly income: unknown
The CMS will apply a default rate if it’s unable to obtain the information it needs to calculate the paying parent’s gross weekly income. The default rate is:
- £39 per week for one child
- £51 per week for two children
- £64 per week for three or more children
Regular overnight stays
If the paying parent has their children staying with them on a regular basis, the CMS will reduce the amount of child maintenance they pay.
Unless informed otherwise—via evidence the parents provide, or a court order detailing the shared care arrangements—the CMS assumes the children stay one night each week and reduces the maintenance payment by one-seventh.
When both parents have children living with them
If both parents have children living with them, the CMS will assess each parent according to its normal formula for calculating maintenance. If it finds both parents must pay maintenance, it will offset the payments at the time they are made.
If both parents share care equally, it may be that neither of them pays maintenance.
Child maintenance calculator
There are several online calculators that parents can use to determine how much maintenance they’re likely to have to pay or receive.
How is child maintenance paid?
There are two ways for parents to pay child maintenance:
- Direct Pay
- Collect & Pay
The CMS will usually ask parents if they want to use the Direct Pay option.
We explain both payment methods below.
This is when one parent makes maintenance payments directly to the other.
Once the CMS has assessed how much should be paid, and both parents agree, the parents can then arrange between themselves how and when the payments will be made. The CMS is no longer involved (unless there are issues with the payments—see below).
The most common method is via standing order into a bank account. This allows parents to keep track of payments and ensures the money is transferred in full and on time each week.
Collect & Pay
This is when the CMS collects the money from the paying parent and pays it to the receiving parent.
The CMS makes a charge for its Collect & Pay Service, which means:
- the paying parent pays a 20 per cent collection fee, on top of the maintenance, every time the CMS collects a payment
- the receiving parent pays a 4 per cent fee out of their maintenance every time they receive a payment
As a result, it’s important that parents only use the service if there’s no way for payments to be made directly via Direct Pay. If one parent opts for Direct Pay, the other parent can’t refuse.
The CMS will send both parents a letter detailing the amounts of maintenance it will collect and when.
If the paying parent misses a payment (Direct Pay), the receiving parent must contact the CMS.
If the parents are using Collect & Pay and the CMS is unable to collect a payment, it will contact the paying parent to establish their reasons for failing to pay and explain what action it can take if the payment remains unpaid.
The CMS has the power to collect unpaid maintenance by having it deducted from:
- the paying parent’s earnings (by contacting the employer) or benefits
- the paying parent’s bank account—they can make these deductions without permission
The CMS can also go through the courts to pursue payment, if necessary.