Parents will no longer be able to use a legal loophole to avoid paying child maintenance, under new laws to be brought in within months.
If a parent owes maintenance, payment can currently be taken only from a bank account held solely by them.
A “small minority” are avoiding payments by having a joint account with a partner, the government says.
It says new rules mean money can be taken from joint accounts, which could mean an extra £390,000 being collected.
Safeguards will be put in place over deducting money from joint accounts, the Department for Work and Pensions said.
These include taking from a joint account only when the paying parent does not have their own account – or there is not enough money in their own account.
Bank statements will be reviewed to establish which funds belong to the paying parent, and both account holders will be given the right to make their case before any money is taken.
However, family and divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd-Platt said that in practice there would be “terrible problems” in distinguishing between which money belongs to what party in a joint account.
She added: “Can you imagine, if you’ve gone into a new relationship – you’ve got married again, and you’ve got a joint account with your new partner or new wife – that could cause that marriage to be disrupted terribly.”
Earlier this year, figures from the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme showed a UK backlog of more than £3.8bn in uncollected child maintenance payments.
About 1.2 million people were owed child maintenance, the figures showed.
Dalia Ben-Galim, policy director at the charity Gingerbread which helps single parents, said the new law is “a welcome step forward” but said other loopholes in the system need to be addressed.
For example, she said it is hard for the Child Maintenance Service to connect with HMRC to track a parent’s additional sources of money such as rental income or dividend payments if the spouse is a company director or if the ex-partner is self-employed and does self assessment tax.
Maya, a mother of one daughter, told BBC Radio 5 live that she once went two years without receiving maintenance payments from her ex-husband.
She said the new rules could help since previously there had been no guarantee she would receive her money on time, even though the Child Support Agency was able to take it directly from her former spouse’s employer.
“At the end of each month, I’d be keeping my fingers crossed, thinking ‘has he paid? Has he paid?'” she said.
Men and women have shared their experience with BBC News:
Felicity in Stockton-on-Tees has been fighting for child maintenance for six years.
“The father of my children has a limited company and he pays himself a salary of £150 per week. So he has to pay the bare minimum child maintenance for his two children, whilst he pays all the profit from his company to his wife, the director of his company. No justice!”
‘It’s ruining me’
Billy in south-east England says that when he was on CSA his payments were manageable.
“Now I’m paying close to £600 a month for one child who resides in Cumbria. This is a third of my net income. I love my child dearly and will always pay my way but I don’t believe this a fair payment and it is ruining me financially.”
‘Not enough for lunch money’
One woman from east London has two children with her ex-partner.
“I was told in 2007 he should pay £64 per week. He didn’t pay and as he was self-employed CMA could not retrieve the payments. Two years ago I was told he was on benefits, that money could not be taken from him, and over £15,000 was wiped off the debt. Now I receive £6.72 per week. That does not even pay for lunch money for one child a week. So after 10 years of fighting and phone calls my ex basically pays nothing towards the children.”
‘My ex cheats the system’
Another man from Shrewsbury, who did not want to be named, is a father of three and hopes closing the loophole will work both ways.
“One daughter lives with my ex-wife and her partner. My ex cheats the system. She claims benefits – meaning she pays £8 a week in child maintenance – whilst living off her partner’s wages. I’m a full time nurse. The CMA wants £300 per month from me.”
Caroline Dinenage, minister for family support, housing and child maintenance, said: “Our priority is for children to get the support they need.
“Only a small minority of parents try to cheat their way out of paying towards their children, and this new power will be another tool to tackle those who do.”