Changes to child maintenance may cost you
IT HAS been widely reported over the past several months that child maintenance is set to undergo big changes. Single parents in Scotland, England and Wales should have now been issued letters advising them of these changes, which are to be made to the operation of the Child Support Agency in assessing, awarding and enforcing orders to pay child support. So what are the main changes and what effect might they have?
First and foremost, it should be noted that the Child Support Agency (more commonly known as the “CSA”) is closing and being replaced by the Child Maintenance Service. The CSA began the process of closing its cases on 30 June 2014, with parents’ being given six months’ notice that their case is being closed.
The cases that are being closed first are those relating to parents who have been “nil-assessed” ie those cases where the other parent does not have to pay child support, and thereafter the CSA will begin to close those cases in which: 1) no money is being paid; and 2) the CSA is not trying to enforce the payments.
If you are receiving money through the CSA then it is very unlikely that your case will be closed prior to 2016.
Once your CSA case is closed you will have the option of applying to the new Child Maintenance Service should you require assistance collecting child maintenance. There are, however, some changes to the way that the system will operate under the new regime, and it is important to note these changes prior to making an application.
Indeed, there is now a £20 application fee to use the service (although this is not payable if you have been the victim of domestic abuse), and there will also be a further 20 per cent fee payable by the parent making the maintenance payment if it is necessary for the Child Maintenance Service to complete an assessment and make an award.
This 20 per cent fee will be added to the sum that the paying parent will have to contribute as maintenance, with the parent receiving this payment now requiring to make a payment to the Child Maintenance Service amounting to 4 per cent of the sum which they receive from their former spouse/partner.
It is clear from the above that the most apparent change to the child maintenance regime is in relation to the charges that will now be incurred by parents going forward. The introduction of these charges has been justified on the basis that it is hoped they will encourage separated parents to reach a voluntary agreement between themselves as to what sum the parent with whom the child does not reside should pay to their former partner.
Despite the above justification, however, the announcement has caused a great deal of angst among parents who currently receive child support, and it has been suggested that, in many cases, a voluntary agreement is simply not realistic due to the nature of the breakdown of the relationship.
It is of course within the power of separated parents to reach a voluntary agreement as to what is to be paid by way of child support which, once properly formalised in writing, can be enforced by either party. Under the current set of rules, if parents enter into a child maintenance agreement in this way then the amount which one parent has agreed to pay to the other in child support cannot be challenged for a period of one year from the last date on which the written agreement was signed.
After that one year period has expired, the agreement will continue to be enforceable unless either parent makes an application to the Child Maintenance Service for a maintenance calculation to be carried out. Notwithstanding any calculation carried out by the Child Maintenance Service, however, separated parents can still choose to enter into a voluntary agreement instead.
In concluding, it would be fair to say that, in view of the abovementioned changes to the child maintenance regime, it is in separated parents’ interests to explore the possibility of entering into a voluntary, enforceable agreement for the payment of child support. By doing this they will of course incur the initial expense of negotiating and formalising the agreement, but the hope would be that this expense would allow parents to avoid the ongoing charges that will be applied where maintenance is dealt with by the new Child Maintenance Service. • Iain Thomson and Jamie Foulis are solicitors in Balfour+Manson’s family law team • More information on becoming a Friend of The Scotsman ">www.balfour-manson.co.uk