How do I arrange child maintenance?

If you have children, both parents are expected to pay towards the cost of bringing them up until they’re at least 16. There are several ways to arrange child maintenance if you and your partner split.

Options for arranging child maintenance

There are four options for arranging child maintenance payments with your ex-partner:

  1. Family-based arrangement: you and your ex-partner arrange child maintenance between you
  2. Direct Pay: the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) calculates how much child maintenance should be paid, but you and your ex-partner arrange how it will be paid between you
  3. Collect and Pay: the CMS calculates how much child maintenance should be paid, collects the money from one parent and passes it to the other
  4. Court-ordered arrangement: If you can reach an agreement for child maintenance with the other parent you can apply to the court to make it a formal legally binding agreement. This is used, for example, if the paying parent lives abroad or to help decide how much to pay for the cost of a child’s disability (as the CMS doesn't take these extra costs into account in their calculations).

If you live in Scotland, and are aged 12 to 19 and in full-time, non-advanced education or training can apply for child maintenance. You can apply to the Child Maintenance Service directly to ask for an assessment of child maintenance to be made.

Using a family-based arrangement

Here, you and your ex-partner decide how much child maintenance will be paid and make arrangements to pay it.

You don’t have to talk to a solicitor or any other professional first. Although you can use a mediator (an independent third party) to help you reach an agreement.

It’s best if the parent paying child maintenance sets up a standing order so that money is paid to the other parent regularly.

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Pros
    • It’s the quickest and easiest way to arrange child maintenance.
    • You can agree on different types of support – for example, buying school uniforms instead of making a payment.
    • It’s flexible – you can agree to change the arrangements if circumstances change.
    • It maintains lines of communication between you and your ex-partner.
    • You don’t have to pay to set one up.
    • It works well where there’s trust between the parents – so the receiving parent is confident the paying parent has been honest about their income.
    • You can still apply to the Child Maintenance Service later if things don’t work out.
Cons
    • It’s not legally binding – so there’s no-one to collect missed payments or enforce broken agreements.
    • It might not be possible to agree if you have problems communicating with each other, or one person feels intimidated by the other.

If you need help to agree how much to pay, or how to pay it, you can find a mediator:

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Making a family-based arrangement legally binding

You might be able to turn a family-based arrangement into a legally binding agreement. You can do this by:

  • asking a solicitor, or
  • going to court and getting a consent or court order (in Scotland, you have to get a ‘Minute of Agreement’).

You can use it to formalise other financial arrangements at the same time – for example, who pays the mortgage.

You and your ex-partner have to agree what’s in the consent order.

Pros
    • It gives the arrangement a legal footing. So if payments stop, for example, you can ask the court to enforce the order.
    • If you and your ex-partner have agreed the level of child maintenance payments, your solicitor might offer a fixed-fee for drafting the consent order and filing it with the court.
Cons
    • it can be expensive if there’s a major disagreement and you’d have to pay legal bills yourself – unless you qualify for legal aid for legal fees. You only qualify for legal aid in England and Wales if there’s been domestic abuse (including financial abuse), violence or child abduction. In Northern Ireland and Scotland, legal aid is still available, but it’s means-tested.
    • You can’t apply to the Child Maintenance Service for a statutory arrangement until a year after you’ve arranged a consent or court order (or Minute of Agreement in Scotland).
    • It’s not as flexible as an informal family-based agreement, as you would have to go back to court to vary the consent order (or Minute of Agreement). This risk a build-up of unpaid child maintenance payments in the meantime.

Using the Child Maintenance Service

If you and your ex-partner can’t agree child maintenance payments between you, you can contact the Child Maintenance Service (CMS).

You can contact the Child Maintenance Service by calling 0800 171 2345 or through the Child Maintenance Service website

They’ll work out how much child maintenance should be paid. If you want them to, they can also arrange for the money to be paid.

There’s usually a charge for using the CMS. There are two ways to pay: Direct Pay and Collect and Pay.

Using Direct Pay

Direct Pay means the CMS calculates how much child maintenance should be paid. And the paying parent arranges how and when they’ll make payments.

Pros
    • You don’t have to work out how much child maintenance is fair for you to pay or receive
    • If your ex-partner doesn’t keep up the payments, you can ask to move to Collect and Pay. This which means the CMS can take action to make them pay.
    • The arrangement can last until your child reaches the age of 20, provided they’re in full-time education up to A-level, Highers or equivalent.
Cons
    • Involving the CMS might make any bad feeling between you and your ex-partner worse.
    • You’ll have to pay a fee (£20*) to apply to the CMS. You don’t have to pay this fee if you’re , under 19, or a victim of domestic violence.

(* 2020 figure)

You must speak to Child Maintenance Options if you want to use the CMS.

Using Collect and Pay

If your ex-partner won’t pay child maintenance, you can ask the CMS to collect money from them and pass it to you.

You can also use this if you set up a Direct Pay arrangement that your ex-partner isn’t sticking to. But be aware that there is a charge for both parents.

Pros
    • You don’t have to work out how much child maintenance is fair for you to pay or receive.
    • You’re not responsible for making sure your ex-partner pays child maintenance.
    • If they don’t pay, the CMS can take enforcement action – for example, taking money from their wages or forcing the sale of a property or belongings. The paying parent will also have to pay extra charges if, for example, money has to be taken from their wages.
Cons
    • You’ll have to pay a fee (£20*) to apply to the CMS. You don’t have to pay this fee if you’re, under 19, or a victim of domestic violence.
    • The parent receiving child maintenance will have to pay 4% of the amount they receive to the CMS as a charge. The parent paying child maintenance has to pay 20%. This is money that could have gone towards child support.
    • You don’t have a say in what type of enforcement action the CMS takes or when it takes it.

(* 2020 figure)

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Applying to the courts for child maintenance

If you can reach an agreement for child maintenance with the other parent you can apply to the court to make it a formal legally binding agreement. This is called a consent order. Both parents must agree to the terms of the order.

A consent order is usually used when parents are divorcing and sorting out their finances. So it might include other agreements - for example, who is going to pay the mortgage.

Specific examples include:

  • if the paying parent lives abroad – find out more on GOV.UK
  • to arrange the payment of private school fees
  • to work out how much child maintenance should be paid for stepchildren or disabled children
  • when the paying parent earns more than £156,000* a year – the court can decide if they should pay ‘top-up’ child maintenance.

(* 2020 figure)

Pros
    • It can be part of a larger financial settlement negotiated between you, after a separation. For example, it could cover other mortgage payments.
    • A consent order can be enforced through the court if the maintenance isn’t paid.
Cons
    • You have to go through a formal court process and pay fees for the order.
    • You can’t apply to the CMS for one year after a consent order is made.
    • If the payments aren’t made, enforcing the order can be expensive and time consuming.
    • You'll have to go back to court if you want the order changed.
    • It's important to get independent legal advice - which you would have to pay for. There are also court fees for making and enforcing the order.
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