Child maintenance disputes that end up in court are often lengthy, bruising and extremely costly, so my advice to all parents is to spare the time to focus on your child’s needs and fairly assess how to split the cost of providing for him or her before going to court. Please also bear in mind that the alternative to arriving at a settlement that you can live with on your own is to have a complete stranger (a judge) impose financial arrangements on you and your family.
Here are some useful tips to consider when attempting to negotiate child maintenance agreements:
- Child maintenance is a joint obligation of both parents, whether they were married or involved in a committed relationship or not. In other words, both parents are required to contribute towards the maintenance of a child and, where one parent is unable to contribute, grandparents may even be called upon to fill that gap.
- Child maintenance is not an equal obligation. Although both parents must contribute, it is not unusual for the parent who actually earns more money, or has the potential to earn more money, to pay a greater share of the cost of maintaining a child.
- When considering how to split child maintenance payments, begin with a detailed budget of the expenses that are likely to be incurred to meet the child’s needs for adequate food, shelter (including rent or mortgage and utilities, such as electricity, water, telephone, internet and cable), clothing, education (including uniforms, shoes, books, extra lessons and extracurricular activities), health, entertainment and recreation. The challenge in preparing a budget for a child is that some expenses are shared with persons for whom one parent does not have a financial obligation (such as a new romantic partner), so some effort has to be made to identify what portion of the shared expenses is attributable to the child.
- Be ready to compromise. If parents recognise that the same income will now have to support two households instead of one, it will be easier for expectations and lifestyle adjustments to be made to ensure that the new living arrangements are affordable and the needs of the child can continue to be met. In many cases, a parent who was a homemaker may need to seek employment after separation.
- Do not let emotional issues with the other parent cloud your judgment when it comes to providing for a child. Parents need to be encouraged to address their emotional issues through the proper channels, such as therapy or parental counselling, to continue nurturing and properly supporting the child. Most importantly, child maintenance should not be used as a bargaining chip in negotiating access to a child.
There is no doubt that the maintenance laws could be simplified by establishing minimum amounts that parents should contribute to support their children, based on their income, basic economic needs and other relevant factors. However, in the current state of our laws, there is no table to consult to provide guidance as to amounts that parents should pay for child maintenance, so some matters are bound to end up in court.
You may expect a social worker to interview both parents to prepare what is called a means report. This report should help the judge to determine what is “fair, just and reasonable, based on the realities, practicalities and [their] circumstances” (West v West JMSC Civ. 54) when faced with a child maintenance claim. For a parent who does not have the means to make substantial payments, that fact is likely to be revealed to a court, but it will also be clear when a parent tries to short-change (nickel and dime) a child while maintaining his or her usual lifestyle.
Here is something to ponder, a quote by Jen Morse, “Children shouldn’t have to sacrifice so that you can have the life you want. You make sacrifices so that your children can have the life that they deserve”.