In this day and age when separated parents are juggling full time jobs with child care it is common for parents to agree a shared care parenting regime for their children. Shared care may help with the daily battle of getting to work on time or getting one child to a ballet lesson and another to a football match on a Saturday but who pays child maintenance when you share the care of your children? That is a question you should ask before you agree childcare arrangements and the amount of child support.

Why? Well in my experience as a divorce solicitor some parents pay too much in child maintenance and others don’t pay enough. It is important to get the balance right. It can be hard to agree on the right level of child maintenance once a shared care arrangement is in place or once the first child maintenance payment has been made. That’s why it is important to get legal advice before plans are drawn up.

What is ‘shared care’ of children?

Shared care is as individual as families. It is a question of what works for a particular family. As a divorce solicitor I have seen some families agree on:

  • Sharing an au pair or nanny so that the child care support moves with the children to provide continuity;
  • A week on, week off schedule so the children spend a week with each parent;
  • A day on, day off schedule so the children never spend more than a day away from each parent, save for holidays.

I am not advocating those shared care arrangements but for some families they work better than the more traditional 3 day / 4 day split one week and then swapping the days on the second week. What shared care arrangement works depends on distances between family homes, new relationships and step children and the practicalities of managing work and child care commitments combined with the daily commute and school run.

Shared care doesn’t mean that the children have to spend exactly half their week with each parent. In some families one parent will look after the children during the week and the other parent at the weekend. You may question why one parent gets all the ‘’quality weekend’’ time with the children but some parents are only able to get weekend work or want stability for the children during the school week. Experience has shown that any type of shared care arrangement can be good for children provided their parents are happy with the arrangements and commit to co-parenting.

Who pays child maintenance when parenting of children is shared?

If you carry out a straw poll of parents on the question “who pays child maintenance when parenting of children is shared” the vast majority of parents assume that the parent who earns more than the other will pay child maintenance.

That’s not right as under complicated child maintenance law rules if both parents equally share the care of their children neither parent will pay child maintenance to the other parent.   

It has long been thought that if one parent gets the child benefit money then their entitlement to the child benefit payment automatically means that they are the parent who is entitled to ask for child maintenance.

One father recently challenged that idea and took his case to a child maintenance tribunal. The tribunal decided that:

  • The day to day care provided by each parent has to be evaluated. The evaluation isn’t just counting nights that the children stay with each parent but looking at tasks and responsibilities;
  • If there is equal responsibility for the day to day care of the children then no child maintenance is payable , even if one parent earns a lot more than the other parent;
  • Child maintenance is only payable if one of the parents is classed under child maintenance rules as the “non-resident parent”, or in other words, there isn’t an equal shared care arrangement. This means that the other parent is classed under child maintenance rules as the ‘’parent with care’’;
  • If there is no evidence to the contrary on shared care then if the person applying for child support receives the child benefit payments it is assumed that they are the ‘’parent with care’’. This assumption isn’t relevant if both parents equally share the care of the children.    

What difference does shared care make to child maintenance?

If you share the care of your children then it can make the difference between receiving hundreds of pounds each month for your children in child support and receiving no child maintenance at all. That can mean the difference between being able to afford to work part time and having to work overtime to pay household bills.

For parents who are paying child maintenance on top of the costs of looking after their child for half the week the child support payments can mean the difference between being able to afford a house near to a child’s school or only being able to buy a house that is too far away to be able to have the child to stay mid-week and get them to school the next day.

That is why it is so important that both parents know where they stand on shared care and child maintenance before agreeing on a parenting regime and child maintenance. Sorting out family finances is similar to juggling shared child care with the daily commute and new relationships. There has to be joined up thinking into:

  • What type of child care arrangement meet your child’s needs? Some children cope better than others with an equal shared care arrangement. How do the practicalities of commute and work commitments impact on sharing the child care?
  • Will one parent be paying spousal maintenance to the other parent and, if so, how long for?
  • Will one parent be receiving more than half of the equity in the family home to rehouse themselves as they earn less than the other parent?
  • If you do share the care of the children and child support isn’t paid how will this impact on the finances of both parents?

With specialist legal advice on your divorce and financial options many parents can agree a financial settlement that meets both family’s needs and receive legal protection with a financial court order.

What happens if we stop or start sharing the care of the children?

If, for whatever reason, you stop or start sharing the care of your children then child maintenance could either stop or start. That is because in most cases if you have children you can apply to the child maintenance service for child support at any stage. If child care arrangements change a parent may be able to ask the child maintenance service to either stop the requirement to pay child support or to vary the amount of child maintenance.

That’s why, when looking at your housing options and finances on separation, it is as well to factor in possible changes in child support in future.

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