Having children is a lifelong commitment. Regardless of whether or not the parents stay together – or ever were in a relationship at all – they both have a responsibility to support their children.
A mother automatically has parental responsibility – rights and duties towards a child – over their child. A father has parental responsibility if they were married to the mother when the child was born, or were registered as the father on the child’s birth certificate and the child was born after 1 December 2003. There are also legal processes through which an unmarried father can acquire parental responsibility, for example, by marrying the mother, getting a court order, or making a parental responsibility agreement with the mother.
Parental responsibility carries rights and responsibilities, for example, the right to decide on a child’s medical treatment and religion.
Where a child lives with one parent or other relative or guardian, the other parent may pay financial support to the upkeep of that child. This is known as child maintenance. It is for children who are either:
It is a lot quicker, easier and cheaper for the parents of the child to decide for themselves on financial support matters and not involve anyone else. A family-based arrangement involves little paperwork and allows you to agree how much the payments should be and when they should be made. It also gives you the flexibility to change the payments if circumstances change.
Warning: a family-based arrangement is not legally binding so if the parent without the main day-to-day care stops paying their child maintenance payments, they can’t be forced to pay up. It’s a good idea, therefore, to seek advice on, and to research your rights in the area of child maintenance, before any agreement is finalised. Child Maintenance Options offers free and impartial advice and information, and runs a free helpline on 0800 988 0988.
It is possible to ask a court to turn an agreement on child maintenance into an official ruling known as a consent order. Child maintenance is often arranged this way if you’re already going to court for another reason, for example, to get a divorce. It has the advantage of being legally enforceable if the paying partner fails to pay up.
Warning: If you’re only going to court to sort out child maintenance, it will prove expensive – and legal aid won’t cover the costs.
An alternative to making a private agreement on maintenance is to ask the Child Support Agency (CSA) to help.
The CSA will work out how much maintenance should be paid, using a complex formula that computes income and responsibilities. You can use the child maintenance calculator to work out how much child maintenance might be expected.
The CSA can help you find the other parent if you don’t know where they live and has powers to trace non-paying parents and compel them to pay up. The CSA can get unpaid child maintenance in three different ways:
The law is broadly the same throughout the UK – parents are free to make private arrangements, which they then have an option of turning into an official court ruling. They also have an option of referring their case to the CSA for help.
In Northern Ireland, the role of the CSA is carried out by the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division.
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