What to do about arrears you’re owed by the Child Maintenance Service
The first you need to appreciate is that although the Child Maintenance Service may have told you that you’re owed an amount of arrears – £5,000, £10,000, or whatever – it doesn’t mean that this is true.
Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General, has qualified his audit opinions on the Client Funds Accounts of the Department for Work and Pensions on the grounds of material errors in the calculations of child maintenance assessments. He has also given an adverse (the most serious) opinion on the truth and fairness of the outstanding maintenance arrears on the 1993 and 2003 schemes
That’s a quote from the National Audit Office who also go on to say:
The balance of £3.976 billion as at 31 March 2016 is the cumulative total of outstanding arrears since the Child Support Agency was established in 1993. This balance represents the total amount owed by non-resident parents to either the parent with care or, in some instances, the Secretary of State. Current legislation allows the Department to write off arrears only in very limited¬ circumstances.
The NAO considers that these figures do not give a true and fair view because of the level of error in the underlying case data, which is a result of both inaccurate maintenance assessments by caseworkers and incorrect processing of cases.
The best available estimates of the impact of incorrect processing of cases indicate that the reported arrears at 31 March 2016 are overstated by around £15.9 million and understated by around £115.8 million
You need to understand that and accept is as your first step. Once you do that you’ll be on the path to sorting out what you’re actually owed.
Does the CMS need more enforcement powers?
Despite what you may read on forums populated by the various gender-biased groups you can rest assured that the CMS doesn’t need any more enforcement powers. They have quite enough already ranging from simply insisting that maintenance is paid to enforcement action in the form of Deduction of Earnings Orders, Bailiff action, and ultimately fines and imprisonment.
The issue isn’t one of enforcement powers per se it’s that the CMS is a government department bogged down in the weeds and unable or unwilling to sort itself out.
We’ll come back to enforcement in more detail below but in the meantime don’t get hung up on the notion that you’re not getting your arrears because of a lack of enforcement powers. That’s simply not true.
What do I need to do first?
The first thing you need to do is to stop calling the CMS. It sounds counter intuitive but trust me, phoning them is not going to help, and judging by the responses we’ve got from Receiving Parents that we’ve asked, all phone calls do is to allow the CMS to stall you further.
You need to start writing to them.
And you need to start sending your letters signed-for delivery through the post office. You can read more about why you should be doing this in our post Child Maintenance Service and Communication – Getting to a result you can rely on.
Once you start writing to them you can start sending a copy to your local MP (more about that in a second) and of course this means you’ll have a record of when you wrote to them, what you said or demanded, and you’ll have the dates you posted it and the dates it was signed for. This is very important because often, when an MP complains to them on your behalf, they will try and claim that they haven’t heard from you, or that you didn’t ask them for something.
So start writing to them.
Make sure you include your full name and address, the names of your children that you’re claiming for, and your reference numbers. Watch those reference numbers though – the CMS have been known to change the reference numbers on the letters they send out and then “lose” the correspondence.
How do I find out what I’m actually owed?
You need to write to them today, tonight, or tomorrow and ask them for 2 things:
- A full audit of your account with a week by week breakdown of the assessments, the monies that they’ve received (if you’re on collect and pay) or the monies that they’ve tracked (if you’re on direct pay), and the arrears that are outstanding.
- A full Subject Access Request for your account information. They should provide you with a full copy of everything that they hold on you and your account.
This is important:
In each letter make it clear that you are writing to them for this information because you are dissatisfied with how they have been managing your account and make sure you copy these letters to your MP.
Now you have to wait until that lot comes back to you. Don’t do anything else until you get that. If you don’t get it within 30 days, write to them again and ask them where it is. Copy your MP again.
I’m not very good at maths
Don’t worry. Most people aren’t very good either. The reason you’ve asked for a full audit of weekly payments and assessments is so that even you can sit down with some pieces of paper, a pen or pencil, and a calculator, and you can check their figures.
Check what they have used as an income figure for the calculation and assessment. This is often where they have made mistakes. If it looks wrong check it again. If it still looks wrong write to them and ask them specifically to provide the evidence that they hold on that specific income assessment and calculation. Copy your MP.
Now I know exactly how much I’m owed, what next?
This is where it gets tricky.
You have several options available to you:
- contact the paying parent and ask to reach an agreement on the arrears and a payment plan. Chances are they’ve been told a different figure of arrears to you anyway so they may be pleased to hear from you. Either way, if you can reach an agreement between you this is always in the best interests of you and your children, and ultimately will help you actually get the money. Be prepared to compromise though. Agreements work on both people feeling like they’ve reached a positive point. A win-win if you like.
- contact the CMS and ask them to try and get a lump sum payment from the paying parent either in full or a part payment towards the arrears
- contact the CMS and ask them to agree a payment plan with the paying parent
- don’t let the CMS tell you that they’re on your side and will try to get the arrears cleared either before the next annual review or within 2 years. It isn’t the law (it’s just a policy of theirs) and any unreasonable or unsustainable payment plan isn’t going to be adhered to for long. Would you rather have £10 a week for 5 years guaranteed or £200 a week that you get for a month or two if you’re lucky?
My personal advice, for what it’s worth, is to try and reach an agreement with the paying parent. But then I’m always happy to compromise.
Make sure you copy your MP in on your letters. You’ll need these copies and your MP onside if the CMS don’t take any action.
Priorities are important
From what we’ve seen and been told it’s often the case that when an account goes into arrears that this also means normal payments are interrupted, delayed, or just don’t arrive. It’s human nature. Remember that the paying parent has been told to pay a large amount every month and won’t have been given any options or negotiated with. Human nature being what it is you can understand why they may have dug their heels in – especially if they believe that the arrears figures are incorrect.
So get your priorities in order.
What you need above all is to get the normal maintenance to be assessed fairly, based on income (whether you agree with that to not) and payments for that need to start or keep flowing to you.
Get that started first. If you need to then write to the CMS and ask them to put a 2-6 month payment holiday in place for the arrears to let the paying parent catch up and get used to making payments. Do whatever you need to to get those payments moving. Once that’s started you can go back and review your options again for collecting and negotiating the arrears payments.
Remember that direct payments to you (for lump sums or separate arrears payment plans) will not incur a 24% charge from the CMS making it more likely that you’ll actually receive them.
Can I get them to enforce the payment plan?
Yes you can.
Once you have a payment agreement you’re back in the process. That’s good. You’ve done well. Now you need to ensure that those payments arrive on time.
2-3 missed payments and you must write immediately to the CMS, copying your MP, and insist that the case is moved to collect and pay. No excuses. It’ll cost you 4%. Get past that. Insist on collect and pay. Once the paying parent is on collect and pay they can only come off if you agree or if they make 6 months worth of payments in full and on time.
Once they’re on collect and pay if you experience another 2-3 months of any delays or non-payment ask for a DEO to be setup. Ask in writing, copy your MP.
If the paying parent is self-employed you’ll need to sit down and breath deeply. DEOs don’t work for self-employed people particularly well.
Is there anything else I can do?
You’re not going to like this so make sure you read the next bit when you’ve had a nice cup of tea and got rid of all your anger.
All the studies and research show that when a non-resident parent is actively involved in their child’s life and that includes seeing them regularly (daily is the best but weekly is very close too data-wise) that magically maintenance starts to flow again and, and this is important to note, additional monies and support also starts being offered; for school uniforms, for holidays, for new trainers, for pocket money etc
If you can find a way to work together, to co-parent, and to increase the amount of time and involvement the other parent has with your children then the data all shows that you’re more likely to get maintenance, on time and in full.
Good luck and if you’re reading our site for the first time, sign-up for our newsletters and surveys.
Also published on Medium.