All parents, married or not, have a legal obligation to pay child maintenance and financially support their children, usually until either the child’s 19th birthday or until completion of their full time education. The obligation is not affected by separation or divorce and applies equally to married and unmarried parents.

The courts no longer have the power to deal with disputed maintenance for children except in special circumstances. They can only make an order if this is agreed as opposed to maintenance for the parent which the court can still decide. This means that child maintenance is no longer a case for the divorce court.

The fact that a father is not paying maintenance does not affect the question of contact with his children. The courts will have little sympathy with a mother who uses contact with her child as a weapon to enforce maintenance.

Deciding the amount of child maintenance between parents is not an exact science. The amount is best decided by discussion, negotiation and by assessing the monies required to provide for the running of a home and the needs of the children, whilst considering the financial means and requirements of both parents.

When both parents are working and in receipt of an income there are two possibilities for deciding the amount of child maintenance.

* To try and reach an agreement between themselves; or
* Apply to the Child Maintenance Service .

The former is to be preferred.

Full disclosure of both parents’ means is of the utmost importance. An agreement can be evidenced in a formal maintenance agreement or incorporated into a court order within divorce proceedings. The maintenance level agreed is not written in stone and can always be varied upwards or downwards depending on the financial circumstances of the parent as they may change over time.