Breaking up is a hard and emotional experience, not just for the parties separating, but also for most vulnerable people involved in the relationship: the children. How do we go about securing arrangements for those that we care about the most? And how can we ensure that parents maintain a healthy relationship with their children, despite them separating or divorcing?
In the chaos of a break-up, establishing regular contact and payments for children is often brushed aside, decided on a whimsical basis or agreed informally between the parents. However, over time, private arrangements are easily forgotten or manipulated, until contact and payments reduce to being spasmodic before ceasing altogether. According to findings in a government survey, a third of applications to the Statutory Child Maintenance Service were done so after private arrangements broke down.
Protecting your children should be at the forefront of our minds and to do this, solid maintenance arrangements must be made. But what help is there for ex-partner parents?
The government has invested £20 million on a Child Maintenance Service that will replace the Child Support Agency, providing efficient calculations for child maintenance and monitor required payments. This new and improved service will bring positive changes that, according to the minister, will encourage families to ‘communicate better, work together and support their children’.
One change involves the ‘Gross Income Regime’, whereby non-resident parents earning less than £800 per week must pay 12% to 19% of their total income as child maintenance, depending on the number of children, whilst those earning up to £3,000 per week pay 9%-15% of their income. This amount is reviewed annually and based on the non-resident parent’s historic income by relying on self-assessment tax returns or information provided to the HMRC, therefore hopefully encouraging more realistic and manageable child maintenance payments.
There is also a ‘top-up award’ applicable to non-resident parents earning over £156,000 gross, and an increase of a child’s age limit for maintenance to 20 years old. This system also enables payments to be deducted automatically from the non-resident parent’s salary if they have made infrequent or erratic payments, thus ensuring that the child in need receives their financial requirements on a consistent and regular basis.
Whilst the new service is largely considered to be an improvement to the legal structure of child maintenance, certain changes are questionable and could potentially make it more difficult for resident parents to get the maintenance due. Such changes include an upfront fee of £20 to apply to the service, a 4% charge by the service for every payment collected and an extra 20% added on to the total amount for payments that have been deemed ‘unlikely to be paid’.
According to the work and pensions Minister, Steve Webb, the charges are designed to encourage families to ‘come to their own flexible arrangements for children’, rather than relying on legal services and structures to make decisions for them. But are such financial service charges, joining fees and add-ons only withholding funds from children?
The government’s idea of allowing couples to make arrangements between themselves with no legal supervision or structure is somewhat optimistic in the light of experience referred to earlier.
If one parent is not living up his or her financial responsibilities for their child, it seems odd that the other parent should, quite literally, have to pay the consequences.