‘When you see a brown envelope come through the door, your heart fills with dread’

Posted 18 December 2023

‘FireLeo77’ reached out to the Gingerbread single parents forum over a year ago. Worries about making ends meet, and long phone calls to the CMS were taking their toll. She soon found out she wasn’t alone.

Like many business owners, FireLeo77’s ex-husband had always paid himself primarily in dividends rather than a large salary from his limited company. This is a legal loophole which allows company directors to pay themselves a minimum wage salary in order to pay less tax. When they split up in 2010, they made a private agreement about child maintenance. As she explains:

‘I knew he was taking home around £120,000 a year. But he told me, ‘Don’t you dare take me to the Child Maintenance Service, because I only have to tell them I’m on minimum wage, then you’ll get nothing.’ And I stupidly believed him and allowed him to have control over me for years.

He was giving me £50 a week for each child. And I accepted that – it’s more than many people get. When we first split up, if the kids needed something extra, like new uniforms, we’d go half and half. But that dwindled over the years.

‘It’s just a constant sense of dread and worry’

As the cost of living crisis deepened, FireLeo77 found herself struggling to make ends meet, despite taking on a second job. ‘Prices are soaring. I worry about the weekly shop. I buy the supermarket own brands but I’m not even going to be able to afford them at this rate! There’s such a long list of things that the kids need, that I’ve not been able to get over the years. I’ve never taken them on holiday. And I can’t give them pocket money.’

Then when my oldest turned 17, his Dad made a comment to him (at this point he’d stopped communicating with me) that he was going to stop paying child maintenance. I realized I had nothing to lose – so I decided to apply to the CMS for help. I knew I would be worse off at first because the CMS do not include income other than wages in their initial calculation, and he would get away with declaring his income as minimum wage, despite living a luxurious lifestyle. The result of the initial calculation was that he only had to pay £108 per month. I immediately decided to apply for a ‘variation’ (this is when a parent asks the CMS to take into account different types of income, such as shareholder dividends, that aren’t typically included in their calculation).

When I first started my application, I tried to do as much research as I could. I wanted to find real-life stories to hear what the current waiting times were. The Gingerbread website has a detailed section about the variation process, but I couldn’t find anything on the forum – so I started my own thread.’

FireLeo77’s thread is now one of the most active on the Gingerbread forum, and is still running over a year later. She’s discovered there are many people in similar situations.

‘I post quite detailed updates – I think that the more information I can share, the better. I think if I was reading it, that’s what I’d want to know. I’ve never been much of a joiner on social media. But it’s been nice getting to know people on the forum, and it’s good to see people going through the process and getting a result.’

Applying for the variation was a long and draining process. ‘You don’t get email updates, you get texts rarely, and occasionally letters through the post which arrive ridiculously later than they are dated. Sometimes they send you multiple letters with the same information. You get into the habit of checking your online account multiple times during the day to make sure nothing’s changed. This became an obsession and I’d have anxiety butterflies every time the account was loading.

When you call the CMS, and after you have waited an hour in a queue, the people on the end of the phone are calming and reassuring. But they can’t give you an accurate idea of how long things are going to take. They always say: ‘Give it a couple of weeks’. So you wait a couple of weeks, then you phone again.

I’d finish work at lunchtime, and spend my whole afternoon sitting on the phone. And then you’re told it’ll be a couple of more weeks, so the cycle repeats itself. It’s like purgatory! And from the forum it seems like it’s the usual service that a lot of people get.’

After almost a year of struggling to make ends meet with only £108 child maintenance per month, FireLeo77 received some good news – and increased payments. But before long, her ex-husband challenged the CMS decision.

‘I’ve been able to get some new bedroom furniture for my eldest, and a computer for my youngest – which is lovely. I thought that I’d feel happy – but I don’t. It’s been looming over my head for so long that I can still feel it. I’ve still got that fear. Fear that things can change at any moment and it is out of my control.’

Even when the money comes, you’re terrified. It’s like the cup is half empty all the time – you can see it disappearing.

It turned out that FireLeo77’s worries were well-founded

‘The outcome of his appeal was that his payments were reduced. The whole process had taken so long that I strongly suspect that he had used the year to prepare his latest tax return to show a reduced income by paying himself fewer dividends and diverting a proportion to his wife, which he would access afterwards. It was obvious he was earning more than the CMS could see on paper by the luxury lifestyle he leads, and his wife does not work. The CMS gave me the impossible task of providing evidence, but how am I supposed to obtain evidence? Stalk him and hack his accounts? I don’t think so! The CMS should have the power to look for those details.

I’m better off than I was, so I am glad I went through the CMS. It’s improved the quality of life for my kids. I would urge anyone thinking about it to just go for it. It can be a long process, and an emotional rollercoaster. But the sooner you start your claim, the sooner you’ll get your outcome.

My ex has chosen to alienate himself from his children. At the end of the day it’s his loss. He’s missing out on two amazing children’s lives, and I feel blessed to have them in mine.’

My advice to other people in this situation would be keep hassling the CMS, keep fighting. You’re fighting for your babies and that’s the most important thing.