What happens if my ex doesn’t pay child maintenance?

You aren’t responsible for making sure your ex-partner pays child maintenance. If he or she doesn’t pay, the CMS can take enforcement action, such as taking money directly from their wages or forcing the sale of a property or belongings.

If you have children, both parents are expected to pay towards the cost of bringing them up until they’re at least 16. There are several ways you can arrange child maintenance.

  • Options for arranging child maintenance
  • Using a family-based arrangement
  • Using the Child Maintenance Service
  • Applying to the courts for child maintenance

    Options for arranging child maintenance

    There are four options for arranging with your ex-partner how child maintenance will be paid:

    1. Family-based arrangement: you and your ex-partner arrange child maintenance between you.
    2. Direct Pay: the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) calculates how much child maintenance should be paid, but you and your ex-partner arrange how it will be paid between you.
    3. Collect and Pay: the CMS calculates how much child maintenance should be paid, collects the money from one parent and passes it to the other.
    4. Court-ordered arrangement: this is used, for example, when the paying parent has a very high level of income; to arrange for school fees to be paid; or to decide how much maintenance should be paid for stepchildren or disabled children. It can also be used if the parent who’s supposed to be paying maintenance lives abroad.

    In Scotland, children can apply for child maintenance if they’re 12 or over.

    Applying to the courts for child maintenance

    There are limited circumstances when you or your ex-partner can apply directly to the court for child maintenance.

    These include:

    • If the paying parent lives abroad.
    • To arrange the payment of private school fees.
    • To work out how much child maintenance should be paid for stepchildren or disabled children.
    • When the paying parent has a very high level of income (more than £156,000 a year) – the court can decide whether one parent should pay ‘top-up’ child maintenance to the other, over and above the level worked out by the CMS.

      Enforcement of non-payment of child maintenance
      If you’re the paying parent and miss a child maintenance payment or don’t pay the full amount, Child Maintenance Service (CMS) can take enforcement action against you. You might need to pay for any action CMS takes.

    • The parent who doesn’t have the day-to-day care (the ‘paying parent’) pays child maintenance to the parent or person who does (the ‘receiving parent’).

      If you use the CMS Collect and Pay service but don’t make a payment or don’t pay the full amount, CMS will telephone and write to you. They’ll tell you they’ll start enforcement action within a week unless you:

      • make an agreement to pay the full amount missed
      • keep to the original child maintenance decision

      If you don’t make an agreement, CMS can take action to collect the money from you.

      Deduction from earnings order/Deductions from earnings request  

      If you’re employed or get a pension from an employer, CMS can tell them to take money from your wages or pension to pay child maintenance. This is a ‘deduction from earnings order’ (or a ‘deduction from earnings request’ if you work in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces). CMS doesn’t need to apply to a court to get an order. 

      What your employer must do

      Your employer must take the amount from your income CMS asked for and send it to them. If your employer doesn’t do this, CMS can take them to court. Your employer can also take up to £1 from your earnings every time a deduction is made to cover administration costs.

      If your employer can’t take the full amount from your earnings or pension (for example because you haven’t earned enough in a particular week), the employer must take what they can.

      CMS will advise your employer to leave a certain amount to cover your living costs. If your income regularly falls below this level, you should contact CMS. The amount of child maintenance you pay might need to change.

      Deductions from bank or building society accounts

      CMS can ask your bank or building society to take child maintenance from your account. CMS doesn’t need your agreement to do this or ask a court for permission.

      The deduction from your account can be:

      • regular payments
      • a one-off lump-sum 

      Your bank or building society might charge you an administration fee for each deduction.

      Liability order from a court

      CMS can take you to court over unpaid child maintenance. They can apply for a court order to take legal action. This is a ‘liability order’. If the court grants the order, CMS can then legal action against you.

      Parent is employed by Her Majesty’s Armed Forces

      If the paying parent is in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and misses payments, CMS will contact the Ministry of Defence (MoD). They’ll ask the MoD to take the amount owed for child maintenance from the parent’s wages. This is a ‘deductions from earnings request’.

      Parent receives benefits or a pension

      If the paying parent gets benefits, a State pension or a War Pension, CMS usually takes the amount owed from their benefit or pension.

      Employer’s responsibilities

      If CMS told an employer to take child maintenance from a paying parent’s earnings but they stop working for that employer, the paying parent must tell CMS.

      They must also tell CMS:

      • the name and address of their new employer, if they have one
      • the amount they expect to earn
      • their payroll or employee number, if they have one

      Giving false information to CMS

      CMS can take you to court where you could be fined up to £1,000 if:

      • you don’t give CMS information they need
      • you give CMS information you know is false
      • you don’t tell CMS your address has changed
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