14 May 2020
Child Maintenance during Covid 19 – Who will support the children whilst the Government is supporting us?
In the last few weeks, we have all had to absorb a great deal of change to every aspect of our lives, including our working lives, which, in turn, have had profound effects on our family arrangements. Many people were already carefully balancing mortgage payments, family outgoings and their own expenditure and are now facing furlough from their employment, or working less hours for reduced pay, or even a total loss of income. How are child support payments to be dealt with at this time?
There are three ways in which child support payments are usually dealt with. Firstly, there are “family based arrangements”, essentially an agreement, written or not, between two parents as to how much child support is paid, on what basis and at what frequency. In recent years more and more parents have been encouraged to try and make such arrangements to take the pressure off Government run services and the Courts.
Secondly, there are arrangements made through the Child Maintenance Service, previously, amongst other names, known as the CSA. One party will open a ‘case’ by providing details for an assessment to take place, an amount is calculated based on a set formula, and, once agreed, duly paid monthly, either from one parent’s bank account to the others, or payment can be deducted at source, through the employer. There is a cost for using this service which is, at least in part, intended to act as a deterrent to parents considering making such an application and encourage them to come to their own arrangements.
The third alternative is a Court Order setting out maintenance provision, although it is worth remembering that a year after such an Order has been approved by the Court, it is open to either party to make an application to the Child Maintenance Service for an assessment if they wish.
So how should parents dealing with a change in circumstances seek to deal with their child maintenance payments?
Firstly, dealing with family based arrangements, as a paying party, the best route to take is to be open about any changes to income, and to seek to agree a lower figure, perhaps limiting it to a specific period after which it can be reviewed. It is worth remembering that the parent with care of the child or children will more than likely be going through their own financial difficulties, and although some childcare costs may be on hold, this is a stressful time all round. Their own employment may be under threat and balancing work with children at home 24/7 can feel never ending. Many parents find discussions around finances difficult at the best of times. It is also worth exploring the alternatives which may include engaging in mediation to agree a new amount, liaising indirectly through a third party or by email or engaging other Alternative Dispute Resolution structures. In these social distancing times such meetings can be carried out via telephone or video call.
If it is not possible to agree a revised figure then it is open to either party to seek a new assessment from the Child Maintenance Service. However, the Child Maintenance Service warns that it is taking longer than the usual month to set up new claims, with a knock-on effect on when the first payment will be received. Accordingly, parents are being urged to reach an agreement between themselves if they can.
Secondly, for cases currently with the Child Maintenance Service, the procedures have changed.
At present, and presumably as an administrative cost saving exercise, arrears of maintenance are being allowed to accrue, and the CMS will apparently reclaim these at a later date. Changes to calculations can be sought over the telephone if the paying party is reporting one of the following:
- loss of employment;
- no income due to self-isolating;
- receipt of statutory sick pay;
- a change in circumstances;
- a bereavement; or
- the adoption of a child.
All of this information is being taken at face value, without supporting documentary evidence, at present, although it should be remembered that Court proceedings can be brought and fines imposed for the provision of false information. The CMS will require documents further down the line, but is clearly prioritising employment changes, rather than cases involving level of income. The CMS has made clear that unless the paying party’s income has reduced by 25% or more, no new assessment will be made and child maintenance should still be paid in full.
If there has been a change to the care arrangements for the child, and therefore the number of overnight stays with the paying parent, the CMS has also made clear that this will not affect the calculation, unless it is a long term change.
Thirdly, if you have a Court Order then any breach can be enforced through the Courts, although after it has been in force for a year, either party can go to the Child Maintenance Service for an assessment. If it is to be enforced through the Court, then there will need to be a genuine reason not to pay, and it is worth bearing in mind that there are significant delays at the present time in all Court proceedings, save for the most urgent. It would therefore be sensible to endeavour to agree a change direct, or to consider mediation or arbitration. The latter follows the Court process, but with a ‘Judge’ agreed and paid for by the parties, who has the power to impose a solution on them.
There are many ways in which it appears that Covid-19 has brought people closer together, but, as ever, child maintenance payments look set to continue to be divisive, and no doubt many receiving parents will feel short-changed, while paying parents will struggle to meet their obligations without a formal reduction.
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