Maintenance orders and agreements

What is maintenance?

Parents, whether married or not, must support their dependent children, and spouses or civil partners must support each other according to their financial ability.

A financially dependent qualified cohabitant may be able to apply to the courts for a maintenance order if the relationship ends. For more information, see our page on the Redress scheme for cohabiting couples.

A former spouse/civil partner who has since remarried cannot seek maintenance for themselves. However, they can still seek maintenance for any dependent children.

Making a maintenance arrangement

There are three main ways that you can come to a maintenance arrangement:

  • A voluntary maintenance agreement
  • A voluntary maintenance agreement using mediation or legal help
  • A maintenance order

Voluntary maintenance agreement

When parents or spouses/civil partners separate, it may be possible for you both to make an informal maintenance agreement. This can work well where both parties are reasonable and fair.

Informal agreements such as this can include a property transfer or a lump sum payment but it cannot rule out the possibility of applying for a maintenance order through the courts in the future.

You may amend any of these arrangements if your personal or financial circumstances change.

Voluntary maintenance agreement using mediation or legal help

If you find it difficult to come to an arrangement which satisfies both parties, you may find that family mediation can help.

Alternatively, if you cannot agree, both of you can get your own legal advice who will help you to negotiate a written agreement. Both of you can then sign this agreement.

Any agreement reached can later be made a rule of court, if the court finds the terms of the agreement are fair. A rule of court means that these agreements have the same effect as a maintenance order (see below). Your solicitor cannot act for both you and your partner in this situation, given that there may be conflicts of interest.

Maintenance order

If you both cannot agree, either of you can apply for a maintenance order. This is a court order made by a judge setting out the terms of financial support for the applicant and/or any dependent children.

Maintenance can be awarded to a spouse/civil partner for their own benefit and/or for the benefit of a dependent child. A dependent child is:

  • Under 18 years old, or
  • Over 18 and under 23 years old but still in full-time education or who would be in full-time education if a maintenance order was made for their support, or
  • A child of any age with a mental or physical disability that means that they cannot maintain themselves

Both of you must disclose your finances to the court. When deciding on a maintenance order, a judge will consider:

  • Income such as income from employment, social welfare benefits, or other sources
  • Assets such as land, property, vehicles, or other assets
  • Expenditure such as household bills, loan repayments, the costs of raising children, or other expenses you have
  • Supports for other people such as maintenance payments for other dependent children

If you are seeking a maintenance order, check to see if you are eligible for legal aid, or contact a private solicitor to assess the cost of the application. You can also choose to represent yourself.

How to apply for a maintenance order

Most applications for maintenance are made in the District Court. In some situations, an application can be made in the Circuit Court or the High Court. Each court has its own rules on how to apply for a court order. Currently, in the District Court:

  • A judge can only order a maximum of €500 per week be paid to a spouse and up to a maximum of €150 per week per child. The court order will specify how the maintenance is to be paid.
  • The highest lump sum that can be paid is €15,000. The court may also specify how this sum is to be used.

If you are making an application for maintenance in the District Court, you can apply to the District Court office in the area you or the respondent is working or living in.

The person making an application for maintenance to the court is called the applicant. The person receiving an application is called the respondent.

The Courts Service explains the steps involved in making an application to a District Court office:

  1. Consider mediation and legal advice

    Before deciding to make a court application, you should consider reaching an agreement with the help of a mediator or a solicitor.

  2. Decide on court location

    You can apply to the District Court in the area where you or the respondent lives or works.

  3. Complete and submit the summons

    To apply for a maintenance order you must fill out a form called a summons and ask the Courts Service to sign it.

  4. Serve the summons and provide proof of summons

    You must send a copy of the summons to the respondent. This is called serving. You must also provide proof of service to the court.

  5. Return documents to court office

    You must return the original summons and Statutory Declaration of Service to the court office.

  6. Attend court hearing

    You must attend the court hearing. The judge will hear the evidence and make a decision. This is called a court order.

  7. Receive a court order

    After the court hearing, the court office will finalise the order and send a copy to all parties.

If either of you live or work in Dublin, your local office may be the Dublin District Court Family Law Office, also known as Dolphin House. The application process for people making an application in Dolphin House is different to the process for the rest of the country.

I have been served with a maintenance summons

If you have been served with a maintenance summons, it means that another person is applying to the court for a maintenance order. The summons is a command to attend court. You should read the summons and any included documents very carefully. It will tell you the date, time, and place of the court hearing. It will also tell you if you need to complete any documentation before the court date.

If the applicant fails to attend court, the case may be struck out by the judge. This means that the case will not go ahead and the applicant will have to start the entire process again.

If you do not attend court, the judge may make an order in your absence. The applicant may also ask the judge to issue a warrant to have you arrested and brought to court. If the judge makes this order, the court office will send a warrant to the Gardaí. When the Gardaí bring you before the court, the judge will set a new date to deal with the case. The court office will notify the applicant of this new date.

Preparing for court

The Courts Service has information to help you to prepare for attending a family law court. Family law cases are heard in camera. This means they are heard in private to protect the privacy of the family. It does not mean they are filmed or videoed.

It also can be helpful to know:

You have the right to appeal if you are not happy with the decision of the judge. If you wish to appeal the decision, you must file your appeal documents within the relevant timelines for each court. For instance, if you want to appeal a District Court decision or order, you must file your appeal documents within 14 days of the court hearing. In some cases, you can apply to the Circuit Court for an extension of time to appeal. You should seek legal advice regarding your appeal.

Enforcing a maintenance order

Sometimes, a parent/spouse/civil partner does not comply with a maintenance order and does not pay the amount of maintenance awarded. In this case, you can look for an attachment of earnings order from the court, if the person refusing to pay is in employment or on a private pension. This order means the maintenance is deducted from the source of the income, for example, the person’s wages or pension. If the person refusing to pay is self-employed, an enforcement summons can be applied for in respect of unpaid money.

The Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011 (pdf) gives the District Court the power to regard a failure by a person to comply with a court order as contempt of court and to deal with it accordingly, including the possibility of imprisonment.

The District Court, in making a maintenance order, can instruct that the payment under the order is made to the District Court clerk if appropriate. The District Court has a payments system for the receipt and transmission of payments received.

Varying the amount of maintenance

It is advisable to review weekly maintenance payments every year. Where maintenance orders have been made through the courts, either of you can, at a later date, apply to the court to have the amount varied (varied means having the amount increased or decreased) or discharged (discharged means the maintenance obligation is ended). To do this, you will need a variation or discharge order.

Maintenance from abroad

Ireland has signed up to various international conventions and there are also EU Regulations which provide a mechanism for the recovery of maintenance from abroad. Contact the Central Authority for Maintenance Recovery in the Department of Justice and Equality for help - see 'Further information' below. For further details, see our page on the EU and family law.

Further information

It is always advisable to get legal advice and representation, however, you are entitled to represent yourself. The Law Society has a directory of solicitors' firms which you can search for a solicitor in your area.

To enquire whether you are eligible for legal aid, contact your nearest law centre. Legal aid is generally not free and most recipients must pay a contribution towards costs. You can download an application form for Legal Services (pdf) or you can apply for civil legal aid or advice online. If you cannot afford to pay the contribution, you can apply to the Legal Aid Board to have it waived.

The Family Mediation Service can help couples who have decided to separate to negotiate their own terms of agreement. The service is free. Read more about family mediation for separating couples.

FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is an independent, voluntary organisation that operates a network of legal advice clinics throughout the country. These clinics are confidential and free of charge. Contact your nearest Citizens Information Centre for information on FLAC services in your area. FLAC also runs an information and referral line for basic legal information.

FLAC has produced a series of basic leaflets on various areas of law which may be useful. These are available from your local Citizens Information Centre and from FLAC or can be downloaded from the FLAC website.

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