I recently heard a case about a father, living overseas, who was billed £12,000 for child maintenance by the Child Support Agency (CSA) when he returned to England. My first thought was there had been an administrative error. The rules on child maintenance state that the CSA is unable to become involved in a case when the non-resident parent is habitually resident abroad.
When I explored the facts before me, however, I was soon engulfed in the CSA’s labyrinthine complexities.
According to the CSA’s Quarterly Statistics, more than 6,200 non-resident parents are living abroad but only a quarter of these are paying child maintenance through the CSA. The CSA is unable to enforce maintenance abroad, but this does not mean that the assessed maintenance is written off. Instead, a debt accrues at the CSA in each case. No wonder the CSA has a resource problem – combined, these debts could be in the millions!
Legislation introduced in 1991 meant that on the face of it, a move abroad and habitual residence there was the ideal way for a non-resident parent to evade financial responsibility for a child. This changed in 2000, when the rules were amended to allow for certain circumstances when the CSA would still have jurisdiction to enforce maintenance. These circumstances include:
- When the non-resident parent works for a UK based company abroad.
- When the non-resident parent is a civil servant or works within Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service or Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service.
- When the non-resident parent is a member of the armed forces.
- When the non-resident parent works abroad on a secondment for a prescribed body such as a NHS trust or a local authority.
Additionally, the vagueness of the term “habitual residence” can give rise to grey areas. The CSA does not define habitual residence; nor is there any case law that deals with this definition in the context of the CSA.
In general terms, “habitual residence” would suggest that you are resident in the country in which you are living. However if the non-resident parent’s sole motivation for a move abroad is work commitments, and they intend to come back to the UK, then the CSA could view their habitual residence as being in the UK. This is especially true if there is already a home and family in the UK, or if the parent spends more than 92 days a year in the UK and is registered as resident for tax purposes.
So when doubt hangs over a parent’s “habitual residence”, that parent may face a bill for ongoing maintenance and arrears accrued during time spent abroad. If this bill is left unpaid, it can be enforced by the CSA through the courts, using a Deduction of Earnings Order. This would mean that the CSA could take a sum out of the parent’s earnings each month, at source. Alternatively the non-resident parent could contact the CSA and try to come to some agreement over how much they can pay and when.
There are other processes whereby maintenance can be enforced upon a parent living abroad. The Reciprocal Enforcement of Maintenance Orders (REMO) allows orders made for maintenance in a UK court on behalf of a UK resident to be enforced by either the courts or authorities of the foreign country in which the non-resident parent is living. A list of countries that are party to this process can be found on the CSA website.
In order to begin this process, the parent with care of the children should either apply to the magistrates’ court to register an already existing order abroad, or apply to the magistrates’ court to make an order for maintenance to be registered abroad. The order then effectively becomes an order of that foreign country and is, therefore, governed by the law of that country.
If arrears of maintenance accrue through the courts and are backdated by more than 12 months you must obtain leave of the court before you are able to reclaim these. By contrast the CSA has no cut off date for arrears and are entitled to enforce arrears which are more than 12 months old. A CSA assessment will not accrue arrears if it is suspended by the parties, but will otherwise continue to accumulate.
Ultimately, it should be remembered that child maintenance is money that is owed to the child, not the other parent. Child maintenance is the responsibility of the non-resident parent and therefore it should be paid.
If the non-resident parent believes that their assessment is wrong or they cannot afford to pay then there may be some virtue in asking for a review or an appeal of their assessment. However this must be done within one month of receipt of the letter detailing the assessed amount that they are liable to pay.
So it seems that non-resident parents who think moving abroad will help them elude the CSA may have to think again. Parents who move abroad for legitimate reasons also need to consider whether they remain subject to the CSA’s assessments – and prepare accordingly.
Note: This blog receives lots of queries related to the Child Support Agency (CSA). Unfortunately, because of the complex and labyrinthine nature of CSA processes and rules, such questions often call for lengthy and long-winded answers. For this reason, it is difficult to answer such queries on an individual basis.
If you are seeking advice about a situation that involves the CSA, I recommend that you contact the National Association for Child Support Action: a hardworking organisation that can provide ongoing assistance, advice and support.