child support

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How much child maintenance should I pay?

Two kids x 20% gross income, err, less pension payments, and then, erm, divided by 3 nights equals… Damn. Start again.

Two years ago I launched a child maintenance calculator to deal with the vexed question:  “How much child maintenance should I pay?”  The reasons I took the time out to develop this free tool are set out here.  It’s fair to say I had the hump with the Child Maintenance Service, on behalf of parents struggling with the issue of child maintenance, at the poorly executed calculator provided by that organisation.

I am not able to spend as much time on this blog as I used to; I felt some years ago that my spare time had to benefit as many people as possible and that I should concentrate my efforts on a more ambitious way to help people connect with specialist family law advice.  I put it all down to a numbers game.  I have been very busy with those long-term plans aimed, a wee bit ambitiously, at bringing family law into the 21st century.  So, being distracted by grander plans, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there have been 900 calculations using my child maintenance calculator.  Most of the calculations were carried out by private individuals, but with a sizeable number generated by lawyers, mediators and some advice agencies.

I will continue to host and maintain the calculator as long as it meets a need.

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Postbox

 

My virtual postbag brings me a question from P: a common question about the relationship between the payment of child maintenance and cohabitation.   P obtained a consent order dealing with financial matters arising out of divorce.  The only problem being that her ex has interpreted the terms of the consent order in a way that has a detrimental financial impact upon P.  She tells me:

“Paragraphs 2&3 are relevant. My ex-husband believes that because I have been cohabitating with my new partner for 12 months (2c) he has no legal obligation to pay child maintenance (paragraph 3).”

There is often confusion on the part of maintenance payers between spousal maintenance and child maintenance.  Spousal maintenance is paid by one spouse to the other after divorce.  Lawyers refer to it as spousal periodical payments.  Let’s have a look at the relevant paragraph in P’s consent order that requires her ex to pay her spousal maintenance:

screenshot of consent order

 

OK.  So we can see here that there is a reference in paragraph 2 c to P’s spousal periodical payments terminating in the event that she cohabits with another for a period of 12 months.  Cohabitation with a new partner can be a common terminating event for spousal maintenance.   Let’s then look at an entirely separate paragraph dealing with child maintenance (referred to as periodical payments):

 

screenshot

 

The order requiring P’s ex to pay child maintenance to her for the benefit of their child is entirely separate (as I would expect) from the paragraph dealing with spousal periodical payments.  The payments of child maintenance cease when the child reaches age 18 or ceases full time secondary education.  The payments of child maintenance DO NOT CEASE if P cohabits with another for a period of 12 months.  Unfortunately, P’s ex has misunderstood the terms of the order.  He has linked the child maintenance and cohabitation.  It is P’s spousal periodical payments that have ceased (or will cease) upon 12 months of cohabitation.  This has nothing to do with child maintenance.  But that misunderstanding has a serious financial impact upon P’s child.  The payment of child maintenance and cohabitation are not linked in this consent order.

Perhaps P could refer her ex to this blog post so he can see how the confusion has arisen.  He should then reinstate the payments of child maintenance for his child.  At the end of the day, these payments of child maintenance are not for P’s benefit but for the child.

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Child maintenance charges

GOODBYE CSA – HELLO CHILD MAINTENANCE SERVICE

I hear the Child Maintenance Service has written to 50,000 single parents currently using the Child Support Agency (CSA) to warn them that if they cannot reach a new voluntary agreement they could face child maintenance charges for using the CSA’s replacement service.  The BBC’s report is here.

Child Maintenance Charges – in summary

The new rules mean that if a voluntary arrangement cannot be reached then:

  • The paying parent  will have a 20% charge added to the maintenance payment;
  • The receiving parent will pay a 4% charge to receive the child maintenance;
  • All parents will be charged a fee of £20 for registering with the new service.

Voluntary Agreements for child maintenance

Obviously, it is best to agree the level of child maintenance and to avoid having to face a child maintenance charge.  All this does is reduce the value of the payment that is meant to be benefiting the children.  This is a form of indiscriminate taxation as far as I can see it.

One of the problems with expecting parents to reach agreement between themselves is that the government has been slow to provide the necessary information and the appropriate tools.  If you are a parent who has received such a letter or you are recently separated and unsure about how to agree child maintenance then have a look at the Child Maintenance Options site.  BUT IF YOU FIND THEIR CHILD MAINTENANCE CALCULATOR UNHELPFUL THEN HAVE A LOOK AT MY CHILD MAINTENANCE CALCULATOR INSTEAD.  I think you will find it a lot more useful and the calculation produces a PDF which you can print out for your ex or email to them instead.

 

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Everybody knows that the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody Knows“, Leonard Cohen

About 10 months ago I became annoyed with the very basic child maintenance calculator provided by the Child Maintenance Agency (CMA) and decided I could copy it, refine it and then, greatly improve it.

Sure, the CMA’s calculator carries out the calculation but it lacks real thought, care and class. It introduced a new formula – that based on gross income – that was not as easy to understand as I first thought. In fact, in places, it was quite complicated.  It introduced nil, flat, reduced, basic and basic plus rates.  It no longer became the sort of calculation you could quickly scribble out on a piece of paper.

Sometimes, life is complicated but in my humble opinion, if a government decides to make something as important as child maintenance complicated it has an obligation to make its delivery to its citizens as understandable as possible. The CMA’s  online calculator is not good enough for such an important function. So, at first, I was just irritated at the lack of care in the delivery. I could not see how such a basic calculator could help parents to communicate about the appropriate level of child maintenance. The child maintenance result was not explained; it could not easily be emailed or otherwise electronically communicated to the other parent.   Because the calculator did not care to explain itself, its results could not easily be queried by the parents who needed to understand its workings in order to reach agreement.

So, I decided to take the child maintenance calculator and make it better. It proved to be very time-consuming. I wanted to give up quite a few times, frustrated at my inability to make the damn thing work and as the months passed I started to become less Mr Mardy Bum and more Mr Angry.  To be honest, if it wasn’t for getting the right hump I would not have finished this calculator.  But my beef was not with my stumbling efforts at coding but rather with the attitude demonstrated by various ministers responsible for key policies.

Why so angry?

So, why did feeling angry with the government’s treatment of families make me even attempt to build a child maintenance calculator?  Here’s why, quickly:

  • It was abundantly clear that the government would withdraw family legal aid anyway despite the warnings from most respectable quarters about the adverse impact on vulnerable families;
  • The government held up mediation as the panacea: withdrawing legal aid would matter not a jot we were told.  But in its wisdom, the government thought it unimportant to highlight the fact people could still get means-tested legal aid for mediation. I mean, really let them know: spend a small amount of the millions that would be saved publicising the availability of legal aid for mediation. The result was a policy car crash; mediation referrals fell off a cliff.  Litigants in person, unable to afford legal help have flocked to the courts – the very outcome the government was trying to avoid.
  • Even before family legal aid was knifed in the back in April of last year, high street solicitors’ firms were disappearing from the high street faster than my mum’s scones as soon as they came out of the oven. It suddenly became impossible for a very significant part of the public to get legal advice at at time when their families were in crisis.
  • The family courts are reeling from successive budget cuts. The public counter service intended to help the public used to open between the hours of 10.00 am to 4.00 pm.  Then it was reduced to the morning only.  Now, it doesn’t really exist at all.  You have to make an appointment if you want to see someone at the public counter. Think about that. You have to phone up the court (hoping the phone gets answered) and make an appointment. But if you want to make a court application you have to do so by post.  You can’t just drop it off at the court like you used to.   Such court applications by litigants in person are, understandably, often incorrectly drafted. They are then sent back by the court. In the days of access to a public counter you could at least go in with the papers and have the usually helpful staff at least iron out the worst mistakes and try to put people on the right track. To believe you could actually walk into a court to seek help. Literally, have access to justice.  The court service is no longer a service to all its citizens. It discriminates against those who are poor or of modest income who cannot afford legal advice.
  • Allied to the policy decision to deprive the poorest citizens of legal advice is a wholesale reform of the welfare state that has driven more children into officially defined poverty. A cabinet defined by high privilege knowingly consigns the poorest and youngest amongst us to the direst of life outcomes.  I find that unforgivable.

All in all, I just get the strongest impression that the government doesn’t give a toss.  It is an abdication of responsibility by the state to enact such policies and hope that the private sector will come up with the answers.  It may deliver some solutions but it will, inevitably, be driven by the bottom line: it will cherry pick those citizens it is interested in and filter out the rest.  The not for profit sector will soldier on but comes under an increasingly heavy burden.

For individuals to do nothing in the face of official indifference is as much an abdication of responsibility as that being demonstrated by the state. So, as a lawyer, like many others, who believes that access to justice is a fundamental principle that must be protected I have to do something rather than nothing.  Partly, that is why I started this blog, rather than going back to, say, the voluntary CAB roster of many years ago.  I realised that I could reach more people in one day using my blog than I could in a whole year of once a month voluntary sittings at CAB.

And this is why my small, further effort at doing ‘something’ rather than ‘nothing’ led me to create a proper child maintenance calculator to help parents towards that difficult conversation about money.  To allow parents to communicate more easily about the appropriate level of child maintenance in circumstances where they no longer have the assistance of lawyers, the courts or the state.

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Divorce calculator simple interest

 

As I confessed in an earlier post, I can’t resist a good divorce calculator.  I was talking then about a divorce calculator for journey costs.  The thingymajig  below calculates simple interest on a given sum. I know, you could probably do the maths in your head, but in a lighthearted way, I want to highlight the usefulness of interest in divorce and separation cases.

 

A divorce calculator for interest

 

  • In a divorce settlement, your spouse may offer to pay you a lump sum.  The lump sum may be to compensate you for, as an example, transferring over the interest in the matrimonial home.  But the problem is, your spouse says you will will have to wait for the whole sum or part of it.  If you agree to wait then the money is not sitting in your account earning interest.  Yes, I know that savings rates are rubbish but, in the legal world, cash is king.  If I am going to agree to my client waiting to get their hands on an agreed lump sum I will ask for interest at the court rate.  That, by the way, is 8%.  Yes, I do mean 8%.  If you can find a savings account offering anything near 8% then I’m a monkey’s uncle.  So demand interest.
  • You have separated from the partner of your children.  You want to agree child maintenance.  You realise that inflation will eat into the value of the payments as time goes by.  So, you agree to increase the payments on an annual basis by a set percentage.  The figure is up for agreement although you can of course vary it each year.  Inflation last year was 2.7% so you would want to agree at least 3% to keep pace with inflation.
  • In a divorce or a co-habitee separation one of the parties pays off a joint debt.  It is agreed that half of the sum paid out will be reimbursed but there is a worry that the commitment to repay may fade with time.  You can agree to apply a relatively high rate of interest on the unpaid sum so there is an incentive not to delay payment.  Example: John has a credit card debt of £7,000.  It is agreed with his ex-partner, Sue, that at least £6,000 of that sum was for joint spending.  John agrees to pay off the whole sum but Sue will owe him a ‘credit’ of £3,000.  Sue does not seem very focussed on when or how she will re-pay John the £3,000.  So, before paying off the credit card liability, John and Sue agree that he will be paid back the £3,000 within 28 days.  But in the absence of payment at day 28, interest will run at 8% until it is paid off.  Sue therefore needs to get a move on.

I will try to track down some other calculators that I think might be useful in a family law situation. Don’t knock it – it keeps me off the streets.

 

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The law on Deceit put to an unusual use

I have had cases of divorce or cohabitee separation where fathers have sometimes cast doubt on the paternity of the children they have brought up in the relationship with the mother.  In most instances, the doubts expressed are quickly abandoned, since most stem from anger at receiving a letter from the CSA following a very short relationship indeed.  Not many fathers insist upon having their paternity genetically determined.   So I was surprised to see a sobering (and sad) article about a man who sued his ex-wife for letting him believe that the children from her affairs were actually his.

The ex-husband succeeded in winning damages of £25,000 for deceit.  He had maintained the children financially after the separation and divorce believing himself to be the biological father.  It appears from the article that the court awarded the damages at a level equivalent to the feeling of ‘bereavement’ the ex-husband would have experienced when finding out he was not the father.

There is insufficient detail in the article for me to comment further but it would appear that the ex-husband’s legal claim was under the  under the Tort of Deceit (a Tort is a civil ‘wrong’).  The article reminded me of my law student days and the leading authority on Deceit which was then Derry v Peek (1889).  Lord Herschell , in that case, said:

“First, in order to sustain an action in deceit, there must be proof of fraud and nothing short of that will suffice. Secondly, fraud is proved when it is shown that a false representation has been made (1) knowingly, (2) without belief in its truth, or (3) recklessly, careless whether it be true or false”.

I can only imagine the impact on this ex-husband and also his step-children upon discovering the truth.  How awful it will be if this revelation destroys the relationship he may still enjoy with the children who formerly looked upon him as their father.

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The DWP App

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) launched an app at the end of November 2012.  The app is intended to provide assistance to people who are struggling with the issues that arise on relationship breakdown: divorce, child support and so on.   I think the app is the delivery of an initiative announced in July of this year when the press reports talked of a ‘Divorce App’ and the figure of £14M budget spend was bandied around.   I questioned then why £14M was needed for an app.  I now understand the spend was closer to £300,000.  Quite a come-down.

I had a bit of a go in that previous post, unhappy as I was with the brutal staff cuts to the court system and the planned withdrawal of most family legal aid in April of 2013.  My bad humour is not dispelled by the ‘Sorting out Separation’ app now hosted by the DWP.  I’m all for helpful guidance but placing impossible obstacles in the way of access to justice turns me into Mr Angry.  For one beautiful moment, back when the app was launched in November, I saw a link to MailOnline about the app that seemed to share my anger.  At last, I thought, one of the press big beasts has woken up to the threat posed by the withdrawal of legal aid and the insulting attempt to fill the impending void with an app.  Fortunately, natural order was restored once I read the article and realised that the Daily Mail was angry, as usual, for all the wrong reasons.  It was just the usual piece about how getting a divorce or separating was being made even easier.  Strangely enough, most of the readers of this blog seem to find the exact opposite: sorting it out is expensive, complicated and deeply stressful.

 

However….

However, I have allowed myself to be distracted.  Since my blog is intended to be helpful to the very people who will be most affected by public provision cuts, I have decided to give the DWP’s shiny new app a fair crack of the whip.

STOP PRESS: THE DWP ENCOURAGES GOOD BOY SCOUTS LIKE ME TO EMBED THE APP ON THEIR SITES.  THIS I DULY DID AFTER SPENDING HOURS WORKING OUT HOW TO DO IT.  UNFORTUNATELY, GOOGLE THEN DETECTED THE APP AND DECIDED THAT MY INNOCENT BLOG WOULD INFECT ANY VISITORS WITH MALWARE. MY TRAFFIC FELL OFF A CLIFF. THANK YOU DWP. SO I HAVE REMOVED IT. IF YOU WANT TO USE THE APP PLEASE GOOGLE IT AND YOU’LL FIND IT SOON ENOUGH.

Good luck and let me (and others) know if the Sorting out Separation app is worth the money we taxpayers have just spent on it.

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I have visited the topic of child support on many occasions. My virtual postbag this week has several examples of one common scenario: where the husband and wife start off by getting it very right, with an appropriate order for child maintenance upon divorce, but then, somehow, it goes very wrong.  The sad thing is, it goes wrong, very often, because of a basic misunderstanding. Most of this should be avoidable.

To the postbag…

Suzanne writes:

 

I have a court order (payable by standing order monthly) which has been running for 8 years. After the first year my ex husband refused to pay the yearly increase, and has been paying the same amount ever since. I have now requested that he increases the maintenance but he still refuses to do this.  Can you please advise what the yearly increase should be as I have no alternative but to take this back to court.
Also will he have to pay the arrears?

I have re-married two years ago, would this affect the payments?

Child maintenance

Suzanne later confirmed to me that this is a case of child maintenance.  In which case, Suzanne’s re-marriage is of no consequence whatsoever.  The child maintenance must be paid in accordance with the terms of the court’s order.  It is a great pity that the ex-husband has failed to observe the increases each year ordered by the court.  In the first place, the order for child maintenance would only have been in a court order if the husband agreed to the family court having jurisdiction for dealing with child maintenance (instead of the CSA).  Secondly, he would have agreed to the yearly increases (normally by reference to inflation measures like the Retail Prices Index) as he must have recognised that the cost of living – especially in relation to kids – only goes up and never down.  So his refusal to honour the increases he agreed is disappointing.  As I have commented before, the costs of bringing up children is usually underestimated.

Suzanne has asked me what the yearly increase should be.  Unfortunately, I cannot calculate that without knowing the amount of the original award, the date it was awarded and the mechanism used in the court order to determine the yearly increase.  But, I have laid out in previous posts how to calculate the yearly increase and also how to calculate the amount of arrears that have arisen when the yearly increase is ignored.  Click on “RPI” in the Tag Cloud on the left hand side of the web page: this will bring up all my previous posts on this issue. 

One issue here, if this is a child maintenance order, is that in the case of a disagreement over the amount of child maintenance, the family court responsibility comes to an end and the parents will have to look to the CSA.  The usual scenario is that one parent wants to receive more or one parent wants to pay less.  This would require a variation of the original order for child maintenance and this variation must also be by agreement.  But, in Suzanne’s case, she is not talking about changing the amount of the original order but rather simply requiring that her ex pays the yearly increases he promised. Suzanne, if she gets legal advice, may be told to apply back to the court to enforce the payment of the arrears.  But you have to get the court’s permission to recover more than the last 12 months of arrears.  The application is made on Form D11 (Family Procedure Rules, 2010, Part 18).  Suzanne would need to set out her calculation of how those arrears had arisen.  This is not that easy but look at my previous posts in the Tag Cloud for “RPI” and “Child Maintenance”.

The alternative for Suzanne if she wanted, would be to refer her ex-husband to the CSA so they could carry out a fresh assessment of the amount of child maintenance to be paid.  The CSA would not be able to recover the arrears for Suzanne under the court order but I suspect the ex-husband would end up paying more towards his child or children under a CSA assessment than under the court order which is now 8 years old and has not been increased each year.  The CSA may refuse to act though if Suzanne’s child or children are too close to the age of 17 (when CSA responsibility comes to an end).  I don’t have enough detail here to make any further comment.

So, if Suzanne took legal advice, it may well be that she should apply to the court to enforce the arrears.  Remember, that her ex could refer himself to the CSA and if they took responsibility for the situation then the family court order dealing with child maintenance comes to an end, and with it, any prospect of recovering any arrears.  So Suzanne may want to get her application into the court for enforcement first, and recover as much of the arrears as possible.  Since her ex will then have to disclose his present income in those proceedings, she can ask her legal advisers to calculate how much he would pay if the CSA were involved. She can then take advice upon whether to refer the child maintenance to the CSA from that point onwards if the award would be higher than she presently receives under the family court order.

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Journey cost calculator for Divorce Finance Toolkit

I like calculators. They are really useful when you’ve run out of fingers to count on.

This is a journey cost calculator. In many divorce and separation cases the earned income has to stretch a long way. Here are a few scenarios where this calculator may prove useful:

    1. If you are divorcing and making a financial claim you will probably have to complete a financial disclosure questionnaire called a Form E. It asks for all sorts of information on people’s finances and one of the sections in particular is called income needs. Invariably, at first attempt, many people underestimate their true levels of expenditure. This calculator can help to focus on the true cost of the mileage that may be clocked up in getting to work.
    2. Or, you are negotiating with your ex over the amount of spousal maintenance or child maintenance that should be paid. One of you may require a car to get to work. That wage may be providing for maintenance payments. The cost of getting to and from work can be significant with the cost of fuel at the moment. This calculator may help to show just how much is being spent. This unavoidable cost could be factored into the discussions.
    3. Or a level of maintenance has been agreed and in place for a number of years but the paying or receiving party has a change of circumstances involving more motor travel, perhaps in relation to a work relocation. So the calculator could assist in showing why the change of circumstances means an adjustment in maintenance is required.
    4. Another scenario is where contact to children is being discussed. One of the parents may have to do a fair bit of mileage over time picking up or dropping off the kids for contact. It is a cost that could demonstrate why the parent paying maintenance will struggle unless this essential expenditure is taken into account. Or, for instance, if it is a mother working part-time and doing most of the motoring around to allow contact, why the maintenance she is receiving may need to have an element in it to cover this cost of travelling.

Ideally, I wish I could find a calculator that would allow road, tax, servicing and insurance to be incorporated but no luck so far.

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Signposts for future childcare costs can be confusing

It is really important for spouses or partners, when separating or divorcing, to consider the needs of their children.  Most family solicitors will focus on the childcare costs and ensuring that these costs, which are significant, over the years of a child’s minority, are met.

One of the difficulties in brokering such agreements is the perception sometimes encountered from the payers of maintenance that they are paying far too much.  Surely a child can’t cost that much to house, clothe and feed? The data available to lawyers is not always helpful and tends to focus on higher income families who may be looking at private school fees.

It is therefore timely, in light of present and future austerity planning that The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has just published research (with the help of the highly respected Joseph Rowntree Foundation) highlighting the costs of meeting a child’s minimum needs up to age 18.

Summary findings from the research

  • It costs £143,000 in total to bring up a child to age 18 and meet their minimum needs, which is around £150 a week (averaged for a child across all ages and including childcare costs and housing).
  • The basic cost of raising children has risen faster than inflation (CPI) in recent years, meaning that with wages falling behind and benefits being cut, Britain is moving backwards for the prosperity of our children. 
  • Childcare can add as much as £60k to the total cost of childhood. Childcare is one of the factors most responsible for the costs of children’s needs rising faster than inflation. The main state support for childcare costs is through tax credits and it was cut by 12.5% in April 2011. 
  • State support fails to ensure basic physical needs are met, leaving many families lacking sufficient funds for a healthy diet for the whole family and living in unhealthy housing conditions with problems like overcrowding and damp. The maximum support available only meets between 73% and 94% (depending on family composition) of basic costs for children.
  • A full-time job on National Minimum Wage is not enough to meet minimum costs for children. For single parent families, NMW leaves them with 89% of the basic requirement; and for couple families it is just 82% of the basic requirement (this is after benefits and tax credits have been included).
  • Child Benefit meets only 20% of childhood costs on average for couple families and just 18% for single parent families. Child Benefit has been frozen since 2010 and will have lost 10% of its value by 2014. Since the war, universal support with the cost of a child, first through family allowances and then child benefit, has been our national public commitment to all children. This universal arrangement will come to an end next year.
  • Having children leaves adults on benefits worse off. Additional state support for families with children is lower than a child’s minimum needs, so families face a growing shortfall with each child. Parents react by spending less money on themselves; in some cases parents will even skip meals so that their children don’t go without. If a single parent of three children used his/her adult benefit income to top up the child-related benefits so the minimum needs of the children are met, they would have just £12 a week to meet their own basic needs.
  • The cost of a child rises as they get older (excluding childcare costs). This is because of increased consumption needs – e.g. more food – and also because people believe children are less able to share a room with younger siblings once they reach adolescence. 
  • Costs are higher for single parents and, since cuts were implemented in 2010, the deterioration in income for single parents is worse than for couple families. A single parent has £107 less than they need and £166 less if they have three children.
  • Parents have modified their own expectations since the recession with fewer meals out and fewer presents for each other. Parents clearly prioritise children’s needs over their own. All acknowledge that life changes when you have children, you make more sacrifices, eat out less, life is less spontaneous and holidays abroad often come to an end. Parents also have less time available.

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