Child maintenance arrears – What you need to know!

  • Child maintenance arrears – What you need to know!
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Both parents share legal responsibility for ensuring their children are financially taken care of until they reach a certain age – even if they’re separated and no longer live together.

Not paying child maintenance will lead to you falling into arrears and this can have serious and long-lasting consequences for your finances.

What is child maintenance?

Before discussing how to deal with child maintenance arrears, it’s important to understand what child maintenance is and how it works.

Put simply, child maintenance, or child support, is a legal responsibility designed to provide regular financial support to cover the living costs of a child under 16 (20 if they’re in approved education) when their parents are separated and live apart – even if you don’t see the child.

This includes things like food, clothes, and housing and is typically paid by the parent without day-to-day care of the child to the parent who lives with the child.

Most parents arrange child maintenance privately but if an agreement can’t be reached, the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) – formerly the Child Support Agency – can get involved.

How are child maintenance payments calculated?

The CMS follows a certain set of steps to work out child maintenance payments. We’ve summarised them below:

1. Review your income

The first step involves the CMS calculating your annual gross income from information supplied by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

They’ll also check if you receive benefits because tax credits and student grants and loans don’t count as income.

2. Look at things affecting your income

The CMS will then check for things that could change your annual gross income amount, such as pension payments or existing child maintenance payments.

Once they’ve taken everything into account and calculated your annual gross income, they’ll convert it into a weekly figure.

3. Apply the correct rate

Next, the CMS will apply one of five rates based on the gross weekly income of the paying parent. We’ve outlined the rates below:

  1. If the gross weekly income is unknown or not provided, a ‘default’ rate will be applied (£38 for one child, £51 for two children, £64 for three or more children)
  2. If the gross weekly income is below £7, a ‘nil’ rate will be applied (no deductions will be made)
  3. If the gross weekly income is between £7 and £100 or they receive benefits, a ‘flat’ rate will be applied (£7)
  4. If the gross weekly income is between £100.01 and £199.99, a ‘reduced’ rate will be applied (calculated using a formula)
  5. If the gross weekly income is between £200 and £3,000, a ‘basic’ rate will be calculated (calculated using a formula)

4. Consider other children

The CMS will take into account the total number of children the paying parent is responsible for.

This includes any other children they live with and any pre-existing child maintenance arrangements.

5. Calculate your weekly child maintenance

Finally, the CMS will use all the information provided in previous steps to calculate the amount of child maintenance due.

This figure could be reduced if the paying parent is paying the flat, reduced, or basic rate or if it’s been agreed that the child will stay overnight at the other parent’s home for a minimum of 52 nights a year.

How is child maintenance paid?

Child maintenance can be paid in one of two ways: Direct Pay or Collect and Pay. We’ve outlined both payment options below:

Direct Pay

Direct Pay involves sending payment directly to the other parent. Both parents agree how and when payment should be made but it must be in line with the amount worked out by the CMS.

Because there is no third party involved, there are no collection fees to pay. The CMS can, however, still be contacted if you’re struggling with payments and need help working out a new repayment schedule.

Collect and Pay

Collect and Pay is when you send payment to the CMS to be passed on to the receiving parent. This option is typically chosen by former partners or spouses who no longer communicate or have an amicable relationship.

The collection fees for sending child maintenance payments through the CMS are 20% for the paying parent (added to the payment) and 40% for the receiving parent (deducted from the payment).

I can’t afford my child maintenance payments anymore. What should I do?

Child maintenance is based on your gross weekly income, meaning you should be able to afford it alongside any other financial obligations you have. However, if your circumstances have changed and you can no longer afford to make payments as agreed, it’s important to take action sooner rather than later.

Start by asking the receiving parent if you can temporarily reduce your child maintenance payments until you get back on your feet or, if your relationship is strained, contact the CMS to see if they can alter your payments to suit your new gross weekly income.

Reaching an agreement privately can help you resolve the problem quickly without the need to go to court and, more importantly, avoid arrears. Child maintenance arrears are considered priority debts, meaning you should pay them before any other debts, including credit cards and payday loans, to avoid serious consequences.

How do I deal with child maintenance arrears?

The first thing you should do if you fall into arrears with your child maintenance payments is to contact the CMS as soon as possible – the contact details of your nearest branch will be listed on the arrears notice they sent you.

They will help you find a solution to clear your arrears to ensure you can continue making child maintenance payments as normal going forward.

This can involve making a ‘part payment in full and final settlement’, which is when you make an offer to clear the arrears with a single payment that’s less than the total amount you owe. However, as this will only clear the arrears, you’ll still be expected to make the rest of your child maintenance payments as originally agreed going forward.

The CMS and the other parent must also agree to the amount offered before a settlement can be approved. They will then write to you confirming the agreement and outlining how and when payment should be made.

I don’t agree with how much child maintenance I’m being asked to pay. Can I do anything?

Usually, both parties will agree on how much child maintenance is due and come to a mutual agreement over how and when the arrears should be repaid.

However, if you disagree with how much they say you owe or you believe they are trying to get you to pay more than you should, you have the right to ask how they calculated the outstanding balance.

For example, if they are claiming you missed payments when you didn’t, you should provide bank statements proving that you made payments when you said you did.

Keeping a record of each child maintenance payment you’ve made can help you stand your ground if you’re involved in a payment dispute.

The CMS can get involved and try to remediate the situation if you can’t come to an agreement but they can’t force you to pay anything if the original agreement was worked out with the other parent.

What happens if I don’t pay child maintenance arrears?

Remember, child maintenance arrears are classed as a priority debt and should be addressed before any other debt, including personal loans, catalogues, and overdrafts.

The CMS has a wide range of powers to recover unpaid child maintenance. They will most likely try to recover the missed payments by deducting the money owed from your wages, bank account, or building society account in regular instalments until the debt has been repaid – this is known as a ‘deduction from earnings order’.

With a deduction from earnings order, the CMS will aim to collect the full amount owed within two years and can legally take up to 40% of your income to help them meet this deadline. The amount taken, however, will depend on your individual circumstances, such as your annual income and any other financial commitments.

Some of the other actions the CMS can take to force you to pay maintenance include forcing the sale of a property, taking your passport or driving license away from you, and applying for a liability order (to give them additional powers to collect the money owed).

What happens when you don’t pay child maintenance arrears also depends on whether you use the Direct Pay or Collect and Pay service. Because the CMS doesn’t monitor payments made through Direct Pay, the receiving parent has to inform the CMS before action can be taken. Missed Contact and Pay payments, on the other hand, will usually result in immediate action from the CMS.

Can child maintenance arrears be written off?

The CMS can cancel child maintenance arrears by ‘writing them off’. This means you don’t have to pay them anymore and are no longer in debt to the CMS.

However, this is rare and typically only happens if the CMS believes it would be “unfair or otherwise inappropriate” to enforce payment, for example, if the receiving parent has told the CMS they no longer want child maintenance or has died, or the CMS has told you they have suspended the arrears for a particular reason.

When child maintenance arrears are written off, you’ll receive a notice from the CMS setting out the amount of debt due and when it first became due. The notice will then ask both parents why the arrears should – or shouldn’t – be written off and give you 30 days to reply.

The CMS will take your views into account but if they decide not to write off the arrears, you can’t appeal and must accept that their decision is final.


The aim of child maintenance is to ensure children remain financially taken care of after their parents have separated and they’re under the care of one parent instead of two. The parent not in full-time care of the child sends payment to the parent who lives with the child.

Not paying child maintenance will lead to you falling into arrears, which can have serious and long-lasting consequences for your finances.

There are several things you can do to deal with child maintenance arrears, but you must act quickly to prevent the situation from escalating.

Key Takeaways

Child maintenance is designed to cover the living costs of a child after their parents have separated
Child maintenance payments can be made through the Direct Pay system (when you pay the parent directly) or the Collect and Pay system (when you pay the CMS and they pass the money on)
Falling into child maintenance arrears is serious and you should contact the CMS as soon as you receive an arrears notice
Failure to pay child maintenance arrears could lead to the money being taken from your wages and you can be sent to prison as a last resort
The CMS may agree to write off child maintenance arrears under certain circumstances but only if both parents agree
Maxine McCreadie

Maxine McCreadie

Author/Debt Expert

Maxine McCreadie, prominent personal finance writer featured in Vogue and Yahoo News, delivers practical guidance, simplifying money management and championing financial literacy.

How we reviewed this article:


Our debt experts continually monitor the personal finance and debt industry, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.

Current Version

May 7 2024

Written by
Maxine McCreadie

Edited by
Ben McCormack

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