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With the new school year now well under way, separated parents may have concerns about how to stretch a limited income across two households. For families with children attending independent, fee paying schools it can cost around £7,000 per term per child which can place a huge strain on finances. One of the parents may also be paying child maintenance as well.

Often parents think school fees and child maintenance payments overlap (after all it is money paid to look after children), but the courts are keen to maintain a clear distinction between the two.

Child maintenance payments are designed to cover the costs of a child’s living expenses such as food and clothes, not school fees. These payments can be agreed by the parents themselves or by mediation, without involving the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). This type of agreement is known as a ‘Family Based Arrangement’.

When parents can’t agree how much should be paid either parent can apply to the CMS for an assessment. The CMS will look at the paying parent’s gross income, deduct the amount paid into any pension savings and then work out, from the number of nights the child stay with the paying parent, how much should be paid each week.

The courts cannot make orders for child maintenance to be paid as that is the purpose of the CMS, however they can order one parent to pay school fees where there are funds available to do so. Whilst they are treated separately, a recent case highlighted that there can be significant overlap. In the case the father argued that the payments he was making for school fees should be set off against child maintenance payments. Whilst he wasn’t successful in his claim the court conceded that when boarding costs are part of school fees, these are essentially a child’s living cost so at least that element could potentially be taken into account.

As you would expect, child maintenance takes priority over the payment of school fees. Understandably both parents and the courts will be unwilling to disrupt a child’s education and often both parents desire to maintain their children’s education will often result in an agreement to pay school fees provided that a lower sum for spousal maintenance is paid each month. It is possible to look into other methods of payment as part of a financial arrangement on separation or divorce and it is always advisable to seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity to manage finances appropriately.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.