Why breaking up needn’t be hard to do

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Separated parents are being urged to reach their own child maintenance arrangements as the Government pushes through the biggest shake-up of the system to date, saying that the Child Support Agency in its current form costs the taxpayer £500 million a year by arranging payments that most parents, given the right support, could organise themselves.

No 10 plans to replace the agency with a smaller paid service to be piloted from October, and will provide new funding for support services to help separated parents to work together, including on maintenance.

Many absent parents do not pay maintenance at all, in cases where the other parent does not want any contact, or “fuss”. Nevertheless, experts say that the payments are psychologically important for the whole family, as well as being of practical benefit. So what are the options?

The Child Support Agency

Most separated families use the CSA to set statutory child maintenance payments. This takes up to 12 weeks in normal circumstances and may be necessary if the parent without day to-day care does not co-operate, as the agency has enforcement powers, including making deductions from earnings. The disadvantages are that the process can create conflict where an amicable solution might otherwise be possible, and that the system is inflexible. There have also been complaints that the agency can be both incompetent and heavy-handed.

Under CSA calculations, a nonresident parent earning £200 or more a week would pay maintenance at the basic rate of 15 per cent of salary (after tax) for one child, 20 per cent for two children and 25 per cent for three or more children — all capped at earnings of £2,000 a week. So a parent with two children who is taking home £440 per week would pay child maintenance of £88 a week.

There are reduced rates for parents earning less than £200 a week. Under newly announced changes, the minimum maintenance payable by parents on benefits or earning less than £100 a week will double from £5 to £10 a week.

The CSA will be relaunched as the Child Maintenance Service in the autumn (with full roll-out next year), and will have new powers to use Revenue & Customs data to speed up maintenance calculations. Once the system is deemed to be working effectively, there are plans for an application fee of £20 and an ongoing charge of 7 per cent of each maintenance payment, with a further “collection” charge of 20 per cent levied on the non-resident parent.

Nevertheless, Gingerbread, the charity for single parents, says that charging will have a damaging effect on children, by causing the affected parents to lose part of their maintenance. A mother wrote on the charity’s forum: “My son’s dad left me when I was only three weeks’ pregnant; he ignored me throughout my pregnancy, even though we worked together, and he has never had anything to do with his son, who is now nearly 4. If he sees us in the street he ignores us . . . There is no way we could come to a private agreement — he will not even speak to me.” Nevertheless, all charges will be waived for victims of domestic violence and parents will be able to avoid ongoing charges by paying using Pay Direct (currently called Maintenance Direct), where the state service calculates the amount payable but the non-resident parent pays the parent with care directly by standing order outside of the collection service. If the paying parent defaults, the state service will step in to enforce the payments.

Family-based payments

Family-based arrangements are agreed by ex-partners between themselves and are not legally binding. They arguably foster better relations between separated families, and increase the likelihood of the nonresident parent staying involved in the children’s lives. They are often faster to set up.

Child Maintenance Options, a government service, provides free and confidential information and support on all aspects of child maintenance, including reaching a family-based arrangement. Its director, Janet Wojtkow, says that operators can also point callers to support services from third-party organisations, including Gingerbread, Relate and Families Need Fathers.

You can call the Options service on 0800 988 0988 or go to cmoptions.org for information or to communicate by live webchat. The service also offers online clinics in partnership with the Netmums and Dad Talk websites. Increased government funding will boost these types of services in the coming years, and an “app” is being developed.

Most parents who make a family-based arrangement use child maintenance calculators (at the Options website) to get an idea of the amount that they might pay with the CSA as a starting point for discussion. Besides regular financial payments, you might also agree payments “in kind”, with the non-resident parent agreeing to pay towards specific expenses, such as meals out, holidays and school uniforms.

You should provide for regular reviews of your arrangement — for example, once a year or with any big change in circumstances, such as a pay rise or redundancy. Signing a written agreement is a strong sign of commitment. You can download an agreement template at the Options website.

If you have difficulty reaching an agreement, one option is mediation, where you negotiate in the presence of trained mediators. This usually takes between two and six sessions at about £100 per session. Alternatively, grandparents or other relatives can often help informally at no charge.

If a family-based arrangement does not work, you can go to the CSA later. Equally, if you have an existing CSA agreement, you can contact the agency to end it and make your own deal, provided both parties agree.

Matt, a 47-year-old police officer in the North of England, has two children from different mothers. In both cases, he and the mothers negotiated their own agreements, although with his son, they first went through the CSA. He says that the main advantage of family-based arrangements has been to increase dialogue with his former partners and that this has fed into lasting friendships that benefit his children, both of whom he sees regularly. In both cases, he has paid a little less in regular payments than he would have done under the CSA, but pays for extras such as school uniforms, which he finds much more rewarding than simply handing over cash.

The courts

A consent order is an official ruling where both parents agree how much child maintenance is going to be paid and how often. These tend to be made only when people are going to court for other reasons, such as arranging a divorce or dividing property or other assets. The court can enforce payment if the parent without day-to-day care fails to keep to the agreement. However, this only applies for 12 months — after that, the parent can go to the CSA and its ruling will override the consent order. Moreover, a consent order may involve hefty legal costs.

‘My kids and I are as close as ever’

Mark Manuel, of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, split up with his wife two years ago and left the family home, unsure how to provide for his two daughters.

The 51-year-old engineer for Transport for London says that finding the Child Maintenance Options service saved him hundreds of pounds in legal fees by helping them to work out a family-based arrangement.

The tips that he got helped him to agree things amicably with his ex-wife. He pays what he would under a Child Support Agency settlement, and goes halves on expenses such as school uniforms. He says: “You just have to sit down and work it out or you get a third party making decisions for you. It is working amazingly, and my kids and I are as close as ever.”

His ex-wife, Evelyne Caprioni, says that sitting and negotiating helped them to stay on good terms and has ultimately benefited the children.

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