When parents separate there are many decisions to be made. Not just who the children are going to live with and access – but who is going to pay for what from now on. Money can be a contentious issue in relationships when couples are together, but becomes much more difficult to sort out during divorce and separation.
Parents have a responsibility to provide for their children even if they don’t all live together. But how much financial support is appropriate, or reasonable, or minimal?
Up until now parents who have reverted to the CSA (Child Support Agency) have an independent assessment of how much child maintenance to pay. The CSA is closing, however, and a new statutory service, the Child Maintenance Service, will replace it. The big difference is that, as of this month, parents will be charged for using this service – for a calculation to be made, and if the statutory service is asked to collect the money from the paying parent directly and if they get involved in enforcing the payment. The application fee to use the Child Maintenance Service is a one-off charge of £20. Enforcement fees range from £50 to £300. Ongoing fees for using the Collect & Pay service will be introduced in August. The paying parent will pay a 20 per cent surcharge of the maintenance assessed and the receiving parent will pay 4 per cent of the amounts received.
There are ways to avoid these charges. Parents are free to make their own arrangements for child maintenance between themselves. They can agree on an amount they think is reasonable and make the payments directly with no involvement from statutory services. They can be flexible and decide to pay for certain things such as activities, clubs, school uniforms or school trips instead of or in addition to regular payments.
If this works, there are no charges. But this can be a big ask when parents have split up. They can be at war with one another, emotionally drained, in shock over the separation or just not able to speak without arguing.
The Child Maintenance Options website (http://www.cmoptions.org) has information and an online cost calculator. This tool provides an estimate of what might be paid if the statutory service did a calculation, and it is based on income, how many children there are and how many nights children spend with their respective parent.
Many separated parents want to sort things out for themselves but they find it impossible to speak to their ex without arguments escalating. A third party, such as a friend or relative, might help, if they are seen as unbiased. Meeting in a public place can help to keep conversations under control. Alternatively, parents can make use of the professional services of family mediators, who are specifically trained to work with issues arising from separation and divorce, high conflict and high emotion. They help parents to focus on what their children need. They are skilled at keeping discussions under control, identifying the real issues, exploring options and moving towards solutions. They can help parents to reach their own agreements on all sorts of issues to do with living arrangements, parenting apart and, importantly, who will pay for what.
Relationships Scotland is unique in having a network of 13 family mediation services across the country.
All of our family mediators are highly trained, and our current course is credit rated by Edinburgh Napier University and professionally validated by the College of Mediators.
We are one of only two organisations in Scotland approved to accredit mediators for the purposes of the Civil Evidence (Family Mediation) (Scotland) Act 1995. Relationships Scotland were also the first organisation in Scotland to achieve the Help and Support for Separated Families kite mark, providing reassurance of our quality of procedures.
Family mediation is a voluntary process and you can go along and find out about it, and even try it, without any obligation to continue. Family mediators work on the basis that parents are the experts in their children’s lives and mediators help them make the best decisions for their family.
It might be worth exploring this option before reverting to the new Child Maintenance Service and paying out money that could go to the children.
• Rosanne Cubitt is head of professional practice (mediation) at Relationships Scotland www.relationships-scotland.org.uk