For parents, the child maintenance system can seem a vast and complicated system of ropes and pulleys for something they expect should be straightforward.
But remember, the Child Maintenance Service (“CMS”), formerly known as the Child Support Agency, is a huge machine with a vast caseload. This unfortunately means that the system does not always work as it should. To help parents, we have set out our top tips for dealing with child maintenance below.
1. Do not delay acting on any correspondence from the CMS.
Correspondence can be deemed to have been received if, according to their records, letters have been sent. There are time limits within which to reply and you can lose rights to challenge decisions if you do not act in time.
2. If you are the Non-Resident Parent (“NRP”), never pay in cash – not even to the Parent with Care’s (“PWC”) bank account.
Where an application for an assessment of child maintenance has been made to the CMS, make sure that, if you are making payments directly from your account to the account of the PWC, you have confirmation in writing from the CMS that this is in order. Failure to do so may result in your payments not being accepted as having been made in lieu of child maintenance, and they may try to make you pay again.
3. Do not rely on the customer service line.
By all means telephone the CMS if you are prepared to be patient as phone lines are often busy, but do not rely on any conversation you have. It is best to communicate with the CMS through your solicitor, or else write to them by Recorded Delivery and keep a copy of all correspondence.
4. Do not accept their first answer if you think it is incorrect.
If you are told there is “nothing you can do”, do not accept that. The CMS are processing a huge amount of applications and it is always worthwhile to check the position. Do not rely on checking this by asking the CMS or Child Maintenance Options (which is the official information service run by G4S). Make sure to take legal advice.
5. Beware of generic advice about specific child maintenance rules.
There have been various sets of rules regarding child maintenance over the years, at times running concurrently. All new cases are under the newest system, but there will still be information and advice online about the older regimes. To ensure you are getting the correct advice for your situation, consult an experienced family solicitor.
6. If you are the PWC, check and recheck.
If you are the PWC, do not let the CMS accept that the information they get from HMRC about the other parent’s income is correct. The taxman has different criteria from those which apply to child maintenance, but it is temptingly easy for the CMS not to make further enquiry unless there has been a formal challenge. Check with your solicitor.
7. If you are the NRP, consider your position.
If you are the NRP, there may be steps you can take to allow for a reconsideration of your liability by perfectly legal realignment of your assets. If you are the PWC, remember that not all realignments do properly fall within the rules.
8. If you are unhappy, record it in writing.
If you are unhappy about a CMS decision, you can request that they should reconsider it. If they still refuse to change their minds and you have grounds, it is possible to lodge an appeal to the Tribunal. The Tribunal is completely independent of the CMS and quite willing to recognise mistakes and to put them right. It is advisable to seek legal guidance before you do so.
9. Do not be put off by the apparent complexity of the child maintenance system.
The whole system, when looked at in the round, is certainly complicated, but the part of the system which applies to your case may be fairly simple. Sometimes, the problem may simply be identifying the relevant part, but this is where a solicitor can help.
10. Lastly, beware of terminology.
Not all payments for the upkeep and welfare of a child are truly ‘maintenance’ and not all such payments fall within the scope of the statutory child maintenance system.
Though the child maintenance system can seem daunting, an experienced family lawyer will be able to guide you through the complexity and advise you as to your options and the likely outcome.