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A grandparent's guide to child maintenance

Grandparents looking afterThe grief and strain of parental separation can affect lots of people, grandparents included. The main worry is likely to be what will happen to the children, not just emotionally but also practically. Will the parent who is no longer looking after them still support them?

These difficult times of shifting family arrangements are often where grandparents come into their own. You can help to make sure that your grandchildren keep getting financial support.

How grandparents can help

One in four families get help with childcare from grandparents. Most grandparents also help out financially - and when relationships break up, parents often turn to their own parents, sometimes simply to listen, sometimes for advice.

This information is designed to help you advise about money. To ensure the children are looked after financially, a child maintenance arrangement will have to be put in place. In the past, a lot of families have relied on the Child Support Agency (CSA) to sort this out but families are now going to be encouraged to make their own arrangements.  

What is child maintenance?

Child maintenance is regular financial support towards a child’s everyday living costs. Usually the parent without day-to-day care of a child pays this to the child’s main carer.

A main carer can be the other parent, a grandparent (kinship carer) or a guardian. If you are a kinship carer, you may be able to get child maintenance from both your grandchild’s parents.

At the moment, the parent who gets child benefit is seen as the main carer and can expect to receive child maintenance. The other parent is expected to pay.

  • Under child support law, if parents share the care of their child equally, the parent with the main day-to-day care of the child can expect to receive child maintenance.
  • If you are a kinship carer, you may be able to get child maintenance from both your grandchild’s parents.
  • New proposals are due to be introduced which will change this somewhat, by recognising that parents may be splitting the cost of raising their child equally.

Find out more about how much child maintenance should be paid.

Why is child maintenance important?

Child maintenance helps to pay for clothing, food and other essentials. It keeps parents involved in their child’s life. And it's a legal responsibility.

Child maintenance doesn’t only have to be about exchanging money. Providing support by paying directly - for things like nursery fees, school uniforms or days out - also counts.

The government favours families reaching their own arrangements for child maintenance, not least because once the financial issues are resolved, it can become easier to discuss and negotiate other aspects of children's welfare.

How do you arrange child maintenance?

More than half a million families choose to make an arrangement between themselves, one parent agreeing with the other parent about the amount and type of child maintenance to be paid. This is called a family-based arrangement (also sometimes known as a voluntary arrangement or a private agreement).

If the parents can’t agree, or if an arrangement between parents isn’t working, either parent (or a child’s legal guardian) can apply to the Child Support Agency (CSA), who can set up an arrangement for you.

In some cases you can also use the courts.

About family-based arrangements

The quickest and easiest way to arrange child maintenance (and the one the government is now strongly encouraging) is for parents to make a family-based arrangement.

This doesn’t have to be solely about money - it can include other kinds of support, for example, providing school uniforms (this is often called "payments in kind").
There are lots of benefits to having a family-based arrangement:

  • It’s quick and easy to set up.
  • If parents can agree between themselves, there’s less conflict which is better for the children.
  • People tend to respect their own promises. When parents agree, payments are more likely to be made in full and on time.
  • A family-based arrangement is totally private. No one else needs to get involved.
  • It’s flexible, because you can make special arrangements or change it at any time. You can also be flexible about how, what and when payments should be made.
  • You can make a family-based arrangement even if a parent lives or moves abroad. You can’t always do this with other types of child maintenance arrangement.

If you would like to make a family based arrangement you can use this Child Maintenance Options form.

About the CSA

A family-based arrangement isn’t for everyone. If a parent’s whereabouts is unknown, parents aren’t on speaking terms, or domestic abuse or violence is involved, you could arrange child maintenance through the Child Support Agency (CSA).

Either parent (or a child’s legal guardian) can apply to the CSA. The CSA can:

  • Work out how much child maintenance payments should be and when they should be made.
  • Trace the other parent (if you don’t know where they are).
  • Collect and enforce payments.
  • Allow parents to avoid contact.

CSA arrangements can be inflexible and take time to change if, for example, the financial circumstances of the paying parent change. 

Maintenance Direct from the CSA

The CSA offers a service called Maintenance Direct, where it works out the scale and frequency of payments and leaves the paying parent to pay the receiving parent directly.

The CSA will recalculate if there are changes to circumstances and step in if the paying parent doesn’t make the payments.

If this is the route you chose, you should keep a record of payments made or received, as the CSA won’t have that information.

What about using the courts?

The other option for arranging child maintenance and enforcing payments comes through the courts. Usually, it’s only a good option if parents are going to court for other reasons (like arranging a divorce or dividing property or other assets), as courts rarely grant orders otherwise. Arranging child maintenance through the courts can incur additional legal fees.

Which children are covered by child maintenance?

Under child maintenance purposes, for a family based arrangement or through the CSA, a child is anyone under 16 or someone between 16 and 19 who:

  • is not, nor has ever been, married or in a civil partnership, and
  • is in full-time non-advanced education.

If parents chose to use the courts, a child is deemed as being under the age of 17.

However, in certain circumstances, someone between 16 and 19 can still be regarded as a child for child maintenance purposes, even if they are not in full-time non-advanced education. To find out more, call Child Maintenance Options on 0800 988 0988 or visit the website at www.cmoptions.org

What if there is disagreement about paternity?

If a person is named in a child maintenance application and the child hasn’t been legally adopted by someone else, the CSA can presume that they are the father if:

  • They were married to the mother at any time between the child’s date of conception and date of birth.
  • They are named as the father on the child’s birth certificate.
  • They have legally adopted the child.
  • They have been named in a court order as the parent.
  • They can legally be presumed to be a parent of a child born as a result of fertility treatment.

If there’s a dispute about paternity, the CSA can use a DNA test. If the person refuses to take a DNA test the CSA will presume that person is the father. Private DNA tests are not recognised by the CSA.

How does child maintenance affect benefits?

Any money that a parent or guardian receives for child maintenance shouldn’t affect any state benefits they are entitled to. However, they should still let Jobcentre Plus know about child maintenance payments which they receive.

Where can I get more help with child maintenance?

Other things you might like...

If you or anyone else in your family would like support to set up a family-based arrangement, Child Maintenance Options is a free, government-backed service for separated families that provides impartial information and support, including some useful tools, such as a family-based arrangement form. 

Their child maintenance calculator gives an indication of the amount that the CSA would calculate child maintenance payments to be. This can be a helpful starting point for a family-based arrangement.

Visit www.cmoptions.org, or if you'd prefer a confidential chat, call the Child Maintenance Options team on 0800 988 0988 (free from a landline).

You can find more information about statutory arrangements at http://www.cmoptions.org/en/options/child-support-agency.asp

You can also visit the Child Maintenance Options blog at Talking Child Maintenance blog or follow them on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cmoptions.