Covid-19 and child maintenance

Covid-19 and child maintenance

Harriet Donavan is a solicitor at Stowe Family Law, shares her insight into the impact the pandemic has had on child maintenance and how practitioners can best support families navigating difficult times in their lives.

Thousands of single parents have had their child maintenance payments reduced or stopped due to the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis, revealed research by single parent charity Gingerbread.

This is not surprising news as it comes amid income cuts, job uncertainty and rising redundancies caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.  However, with almost half of single-parent families living in poverty, the effects can be devastating.

With the true extent of the impact on employment rates not expected until the furlough scheme ends in September, the pressure on single parents will continue.  This may be due to difficulty making payments due to job loss or living on a reduced income due to a drop in maintenance.

At Stowe Family Law, we have seen increased enquiries from parents who can no longer meet child maintenance payments due to a lack of income and unemployment and parents whose former partners have stopped making payments to them and are struggling to make ends meet.

How to advise these parents on what to do if payments have been reduced or stopped without agreement depends on how the arrangements for child maintenance were put in place.

Agreeing on child maintenance 

There are three ways to agree on a child maintenance plan.

  • Family-based arrangement – this is where the parents agree on the level of maintenance payments between themselves and manage the process. Whilst a useful way to resolve maintenance issues,  as it reduces conflict, these arrangements are rarely legally binding. Therefore if payments reduce or stop, you cannot use the legal system to enforce them.
  • Use of the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) – this government-run scheme means that child maintenance payments are calculated by the service based on a fixed formula and are enforceable by law via the CMS.
  • Court order – The family court can approve an agreement reached between parents within divorce proceedings but, in most cases, will not become involved in any child maintenance dispute, leaving such disputes to the CMS.

However, there are certain limited circumstances where a resident parent can seek orders from the court for child maintenance, for example, where the paying parent has a very high income or the child has a disability.

Dealing with reduced or non-payment of maintenance 

We advise all our clients, where appropriate, to talk to their ex-partner about their financial situation.

For those with a family-based arrangement, direct communication is key as the arrangement is not legally binding and cannot be enforced.  If parents cannot agree, they will need to apply to the CMS for assistance.

Even if the CMS are already involved, we recommend that where appropriate, the parents talk to each other to better understand their respective situations. This may be a temporary issue brought about by the impact of Covid-19, and any reduction in payments could also be temporary.

If a parent is concerned that the financial information provided to the CMS is incorrect, they can contact the CMS directly and ask for their former partner’s situation to be reassessed, and any necessary CMS calculation can be modified accordingly.

For those rare cases where maintenance has been arranged via a court order, and payments are reduced or stopped without a prior agreement, the paying parent is in breach of the court order.  If a client believes the parent can still make the payments, the court order can be enforced.

Playing the system

In many of the cases we have dealt with, there have been genuine circumstances that have affected a parent’s ability to pay brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, for example,  job loss, reduced income or businesses failing.

Most paying parents are continuing to support their children during this difficult time, but there are concerns that some parents are using the pandemic to unjustly lower calculations and halt payments altogether.

We advise all our clients, where there has been a genuine change to paying parent’s financial situation, to work together to find a middle ground and negotiate a temporary reduction in maintenance or defer payments until the financial position improves.

However, anyone found abusing the system will find themselves subject to the enforcement powers of the CMS or the Court.

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