Lots of you have been in touch asking about child maintenance payments during the COVID-19 lockdown. There's little official advice other than children under 18 should continue to see both parents and move between their two home to keep the status quo. But what happens to child maintenance payments if your situation changes?
Child maintenance is the money a parent pays towards their child's upbringing. All parents have a responsibility to support their child financially, irrespective of whether you see your child. But if your circumstances change due to COVID-19, for example, if you lose your job or your hours or pay are reduced, you may want or need to discuss a change in the amount of money you pay to your other parent.
How you make a change to child maintenance depends on whether your arrangements are set out in a court order that is less than 12 months old, made through the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) or private agreements between the two of you. Whichever way you action the change, there are some guiding principles to agreeing on a change with your other parent set out here to help you keep things amicable.
Don't make unilateral decisions
Co-parenting can be tough at the best of times, especially if you are new to it, or your divorce or separation ended acrimoniously. A decision to change your child maintenance payments should be discussed and agreed together, not taken by one of you no matter how obvious or necessary it feels and especially in the current, difficult circumstances. Emotions are heightened, so talking to your other parent can feel especially challenging just now but it's even more important that you act together in the best interests of your children.
Be aware of the consequences of changes
If you have a court order that sets out your child maintenance payments and the order is less than 12 months old, you will be in breach of the order if you make changes. If these are unilateral and your ex disagrees with them, you could find yourself in court with costs to pay and an enforcement order against you. If you agree together to vary the order temporarily, then you should make a note of your agreement and review it until circumstances return to normal. It's essential to keep a paper trail between you, so you are both clear about any changes in the amount of child maintenance, the likely duration of the changes, and the trigger for normal payments to resume.
Engage in a discussion about what's fair and reasonable
If your child maintenance arrangements are private (made verbally between you or set out in a parenting plan), then you should discuss what's fair and reasonable under your new circumstances. An amicable way of doing this could involve making a list of the outgoings in both homes and looking at what could be cut back or where cash flow can be changed.
For example, can either of you get a payment holiday on a mortgage or reduce your mortgage interest rate? Will the bank offer a free overdraft facility to tide you over or are there ways you can save money in either household so you can re-direct money? Are there savings that can be used, benefits that can be claimed or government pandemic help that can be applied for? Is there any community or school support either of you can access to help tide things over? Remember this is temporary. Take each day one at a time, do what you can for now, for this day and this week.
Talk in terms of solutions
"I need to talk to you about my changing job situation and how we'll meet the costs of the children over the next few months" VS "I've lost my job; I'm stopping your child maintenance". Explain your new income situation, how long it will be before you can access government support, benefits, or a new income source. You and your ex may have reduced outgoings on the children as childcare provision, school meals, uniform, clothing costs, clubs and treats may all have reduced. A way forward is to try and negotiate a realistic temporary figure for lockdown. 'Lockdown maintenance' recognises the changing circumstances of each parent. It's temporary, and you should agree the trigger of increasing maintenance back to the normal amount at the same time you agree on changes.
Using the government Child Maintenance Calculator
If your income has changed dramatically and you are unsure what you should be paying, you can use the government's child maintenance calculator to work out the statutory minimum payment. You will need to know your annual or monthly salary before tax, calculate the number of nights each child stays with you, and put those figures into the website when prompted. This will provide a basic minimum while you adjust to your new circumstance and work out a more family-based arrangement that considers your lifestyle and circumstances.
Don't rock the boat unnecessarily
Co-parenting is a long game. There are many years of childhood. If you can maintain the status quo during this difficult time, then do. This will help to build another cornerstone of co-parenting – TRUST. If your circumstances have not changed, don't try to seek to make savings or capital out of the difficult situation… the trust and goodwill you engender are worth more.
Here to help if you need us
If you're struggling to engage with your other parent, then amicable offers co-parenting coaching sessions. These can be one-off sessions to solve a specific issue or a series of sessions to build an effective co-parenting relationship or parenting plan. Whatever you need, remember we are here to help and offer 15-minute free telephone coaching sessions to point you in the right direction so please get in touch.
If you are looking for more helpful tips, this topic is featured on Episode #5 of The Divorce Podcast.