Legal parents (and in some cases step-parents) have a duty to provide for their children financially.
For parents who are separating this usually means that the parent who is not living with the child should contribute financially to the child's care. This might take the form of regular maintenance payments and/or the provision of assets or capital lump sums (such as providing a home). The law can be more complex for separating parents who have children conceived through assisted reproduction, for example lesbian parents or parents through surrogacy. Disputes about financial provision for children also sometimes arise with donors or surrogates.
If financial support cannot be agreed, then there are various legal steps which can be taken to resolve things.
Child Maintenance Service
The Child Maintenance Service is a public body which deals with child maintenance. It replaced the Child Support Agency from February 2013 (although the CSA continues to deal with claims made before that date). Those responsible for a child can make an application to the Child Maintenance Service to require a parent who does not live with the child to pay regular maintenance. Claims can only be made against someone who is a legal parent.
The Child Maintenance Service will carry out an assessment of the non-resident parent's income, and will require payment of a sum determined as regular maintenance. This is usually a fixed percentage of a weekly salary. Reductions are available if the child regularly spends one night or more per week staying with the parent who is paying maintenance. Find out more about the calculation of child maintenance using the government's child maintenance calculator.
Court orders: divorce and civil partnership dissolution
The court has the power to make wide-ranging financial orders in relation to couples who are married or civil partners, and this includes orders designed to make provision for children. For example, the court might order that one parent should pay regular maintenance or school fees, or it might order that one parent should own or have the right to continue living in a shared home if he or she is caring for children. This will be considered as part of the process of resolving financial disputes between separating spouses.
The court can make orders in relation to any child who is treated as a ‘child of the family'. This includes step-children and children who are conceived through assisted reproduction and are not the legal children of both partners. However, it only applies to parents and step-parents who are married or in a civil partnership.
Court orders: Schedule 1 of the Children Act
The court also has the power to make freestanding orders for financial provision for children under Schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989, which are not connected with divorce or dissolution proceedings. The court can make a wide range of orders, including that one parent should pay regular maintenance or school fees (including ‘top up' maintenance for high earners), or that one parent should own or have the right to continue living in a shared home if he or she is caring for young children. These powers can be particularly useful in contexts where the parents are not married to each other.
The court will assess the financial resources of the parties following full disclosure of their assets and income. Any order is made for the benefit of the child, and so the focus will be on the financial needs of the child (rather than the parent), particularly including any special needs, disabilities or education needs they have.
An application under Schedule 1 can only be made against someone who is legally a parent or a (married or civilly partnered) step-parent. This means that claims cannot be made against certain same-sex parents and other unmarried parents through assisted reproduction who are not recognised as legal parents. For example in T v B (2010), the court was unable to require a lesbian non-birth mother to pay maintenance for her child, even though she had been awarded shared care and parental responsibility.