How long do I pay child maintenance for?

James Pirrie, a Director of FLiP and acknowledged specialist in the rules relating to child maintenance payments, examines when and for how long child maintenance payments are made.

What triggers payment of child maintenance?

  1. Generally the payment process is started by a “parent with care” (PWC) seeking child maintenance from a “non-resident parent” (NRP). The maintenance clock starts ticking from when the NRP is contacted or, if the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) decides that the NRP has been avoiding being contacted, then the date when they would have been contacted.

Occasionally the NRP makes the application to the CMS (usually for tactical reasons). Here the “clock” starts ticking when the application is made.

It will take a bit of time to finalise what level of payment should be made (sometimes a huge amount of time) and the award is always then back-dated to this point, the so called “effective date”.  Changes may be significant enough to change the obligation but almost always only if they are actually notified to the CMS.

2.    If an application is made to the court, rather than the CMS, then the court is free to decide the start date for the maintenance payments:

a) Generally the start date is when the court makes its order;

b) though the court can elect to back date the payments to any time as far back as the date of the application;

c) finally there are special rules if the court is making an order following the end of a CMS award … here it can back date even longer, up to six months.

3. Where there is a court order in place and either party is permitted to make an application to the CMS and does so, then, instead of the rules at 1 and 2 above:

i) This knocks out the court order exactly two months and two days after the application is made; and

ii) The CMS “clock” starts ticking at this point.

4. Finally if a court is making an order varying an earlier court order, then the court has the freedom to back date the payments to such date as the court considers appropriate.

When does the CMS have the power to decide on my child maintenance?

  • Geography: The parent with care and the child must be based in the United Kingdom – as must (with some exceptions) the non-resident parent;
  • Age and stage: Broadly, the CMS has jurisdiction until the 31st of August in the year that the child completes their A-levels;
  • Parentage: Applications can only be made by a person who is in law the mother or father of the child. Thus natural or adoptive parents can claim whilst step-parents (even those granted parental responsibility or the object of a residence / child arrangement order) cannot;
  • Separation: Whilst the courts can make orders anticipating the separation of the parties, only if separation has taken place does the CMS become able to receive an application for provision (and it must follow that until this point, the court has a free hand to make an order);
  • Shared care: The Child Support Maintenance Calculation Regulations 2012 created a new exclusion: put briefly, under regulation 50, applications can only be made if one parent provides care to a lesser extent than the other parent: if you are both providing 50/50 care, the CMS won’t be able to make an order;
  • Order: If the court has made an order within the previous twelve months then such an order excludes the CMS from involvement.

Importantly, where the CMS has jurisdiction (or would do, were an application to be made), the court is prohibited from exercising any power to make a child maintenance order save (broadly) 1. by agreement; or 2. as to top up a maximum assessment (because the NRP earns over £156k p/a gross), or 3. for education or disability.

When does child maintenance cease?

 CMS rules:

  • If the child leaves the UK;
  • If the NRP leaves the UK (unless the extended jurisdiction rules); but
  • For most, jurisdiction ends after the last day of August after A-levels although there is a plethora of detailed rules on the subject for those continuing in apprenticeships, non-advanced education and in training for certain careers;
  • Adoption of the child;
  • If the parties start cohabiting;
  • Shared-care: where the parties care equally (50/50) for the child;
  • Via an application. An application can be made at any time for the CMS to cease acting but, subject to certain exceptions, there is nothing to stop a new application then being submitted.

Court rules:

  • Until the child’s 17th birthday; but
  • Child maintenance payments can last until the child’s 18th birthday if the court thinks it right (which it almost always will do); and
  • It can extend further to the end of training, but only if the child is or would be undergoing full-time education or training for a trade profession or vocation.  Almost always the obligation is capped to the end of a child’s first degree.
  • There is capacity to make an exceptional long-arm arrangement, realistically only in circumstances of long-term disability and dependency.

Orders for child maintenance payments cease to have effect on the death of the person liable to make the payments under the order.  There is also the often forgotten provision that may terminate an award earlier where parents live together for six months.

What if the children are at university?

Significantly the CMS does NOT impose any obligation for child maintenance payments during the university years – the parents or the child have to go back to the court for that provision, if the rules (and there are some dangerous technical traps) permit this.


James Pirrie is a director at Family Law in Partnership. He is a specialist in child maintenance and has previously appeared before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to talk about the practicality of the rules surrounding the Child Maintenance Service.

For more information on when and for how long child maintenance payments can be paid, visit our dedicated website page or please contact James Pirrie at E: or T: 020 7420 5000.