Recently, a new National Audit Office report indicated some £3 billion in child maintenance arrears is considered ‘uncollectable’ which has led to this amount being written off, potentially depriving thousands of children of a better quality of life.

The Child Support Act 1991 deals with maintenance for most children where they and their parents reside in the UK. The current emphasis for child maintenance is now private maintenance agreements, with resort to the Child Maintenance Service only when these are unworkable. It is preferable for parents to come to an agreement themselves over child maintenance only involving the state where this is not possible.

Section 11 of the Child Support Act 1991 provides:

‘For the purposes of this Act, each parent of a qualifying child is responsible for maintaining him’

A child is defined as an unmarried person under the age of 16 or a person under 20 receiving full time education which is not advanced education. The child must be living apart from one or both of his parents most of the time to qualify.

The Child Maintenance Service, rather than the court, has almost exclusive jurisdiction to deal with child maintenance. This means that if a child maintenance application can be dealt with by the Child Maintenance Service then it must be pursued there.

The court can decide cases in which the child maintenance service has no jurisdiction. This means it deals with maintenance for step-children who are children of the family and for those biological children who are too old to be qualifying children. The court would also have jurisdiction where either of the parents or the child is not habitually resident in the UK.

In all other cases the Child Maintenance Service will take action if child maintenance is not paid. When the payment is missed following an assessment, the service will contact the paying parents to find out why they haven’t paid, arrange for them to pay what they owe and warn them about action that might be taken if they do not.

Unpaid child maintenance can be collected in three different ways:

  • Take money from a paying parent’s earnings or benefits
  • Take money from a bank or building society account
  • Take court action

The National Audit Office highlights the need for better enforcement powers if the alternative is writing off. Family based arrangements are often considered the best answer when a relationship ends. Such agreements can be made directly between parents using the Child Maintenance Service’s online calculator or in family mediation and are much more likely to work for those involved as parents feel they had more control of the financial decisions made.

The family finance team at TV Edwards LLP comprises specialist, accredited lawyers with many years of experience in helping parents and divorcees find bespoke solutions, including in relation to consent orders and other family agreements.

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