An increasing number of individuals in Hong Kong are choosing not to get married. For unmarried couples who have children, many are unaware of their legal rights for financial support should the unmarried couple split. Indeed, the financial obligations of unmarried parents after separation are not as clear cut and certainly not the same as married couples.
When unmarried couples separate, they are not entitled to claim for maintenance for themselves from their ex-partner. An unmarried parent may find him or herself without accommodation or adequate funds to maintain the same standard of living he or she enjoyed while together. The only form of financial support an unmarried parent can obtain is child maintenance under the Guardianship of Minors Ordinance.
What financial support can an unmarried parent claim for the benefit of the child?
It is always desirable for unmarried parents to try and reach an agreement on how to support their child upon separation. However, if an agreement cannot be reached, an unmarried parent may apply to the court for the following forms of financial support for the benefit of the child:-
- Lump sum payment for the immediate and non-recurring needs of the child or for any liabilities or expenses previously incurred in relation to the child
- This can cover the one-off needs of the child within the immediate future such as medical treatment, school uniforms and equipment.
- Maintenance payments
- Secured maintenance payments
- Transfer of property
- Settlement of property
In determining the amount to be paid for the benefit of the child, the court will consider what is reasonable, bearing in mind the paying parent’s financial situation. The Court will not force the paying parent to pay an amount he/she cannot afford. Moreover, when deciding what orders should be made, the court will have to keep in mind what is in best interests of the child.
How is child maintenance calculated for unmarried parents?
An unmarried parent can claim child maintenance to meet the reasonable needs of the child until the child reaches 18 or finishes full-time education. The child maintenance can cover expenses for the child’s normal activities and necessities such as food, clothes, medical/dental expenses, school fees, tuition/extracurricular activities, school buses and entertainment/presents. It can also cover the costs of hiring a domestic helper. The paying parent is usually required to pay the education expenses including tuition fees and school bus fees directly.
Crucially, the unmarried parent can seek child maintenance to cover rental which more often than not is the largest expense an unmarried parent will incur particularly in Hong Kong where property prices can reach unaffordable levels. However, all of this has to be within the means of the paying parent taking into account how much he/she earns per month and his/her personal monthly expenses.
In determining what amount of child maintenance is reasonable, the court will also consider the standard of living of the paying parent such as the size of his/her flat, whether he/she was a member of any clubs and how often he/she travelled. For instance, if the paying parent enjoys a comfortable standard of living, eating at good restaurants and going on frequent holidays overseas, the court will not expect the child to live on a shoestring budget.
An unmarried parent may also claim a ‘carer’s allowance’ to support him or herself in raising the child. This ‘carer’s allowance’ will cover the unmarried parent’s basic needs when looking after the child, in particular, when it limits his/her ability to work, and would increase the total amount of child maintenance payable to him/her. It can cover the expenses incurred to maintain the home such as utilities and other general household expenses. However, this allowance is usually a lot less than the maintenance a married parent would receive and the Court will take into account whether the unmarried parent can start working part-time or gradually return to full time work as the child grows older.
For many, the rights of an unmarried parent for financial support of children are not well understood. If you are considering making a claim for child maintenance as an unmarried parent it is important to seek legal advice from a family law professional.