Maternity benefits: Your essential guide

Expecting a baby? Here are 6 facts you need to know…

Having a baby is a stressful enough time as it is. The added worry of being off work for up to twelve months with reduced (or no) salary just goes to make the whole experience all the more worrying. The best way to ease some of this stress? Get educated - find out everything that you are eligible for before you go on maternity leave!

This little bit of preparation will allow you to plan your finances so that you can devote all of your attention to your new arrival without fear of any nasty surprises. Aside from the odd explosive nappy, that is…

Maternity leave explained

The term ‘maternity leave’ means approved time off work for a mother before and after the birth of her child. If you’re an employee with a contract, then you are eligible for statutory maternity leave of up to one year: 26 weeks’ ordinary maternity leave and then 26 weeks’ additional maternity leave. By law, employees have to take at least two weeks off work after the birth (four weeks if you work in a factory). Unclear if you’re an employee? Ask your company’s HR department or your local Citizens Advice Bureau for help. It’s really important to check, as some workers, such as agency staff, are subject to different rules on maternity leave.

Statutory maternity pay - who's entitled

Statutory maternity pay (SMP) is the money all eligible employees are entitled to on their maternity leave, and can be paid for up to 39 weeks. An ‘eligible’ employee will earn at least £113 a week, must give proof of pregnancy, and will have worked for their employer continuously for at least 26 weeks up to the 'qualifying week' (the 15th week before the expected week of childbirth). The proof should be either a letter or a MATB1 certificate from your doctor or midwife. You must also be an employee rather than a worker – the difference is that employees work under an employment contract; workers often have other arrangements.

For the first six weeks of your maternity leave, SMP is 90% of your average weekly earnings before tax and National Insurance, with the next 33 weeks at £140.98 or 90% of your average weekly earnings – whichever is the lowest. SMP is paid just like your normal wages, with tax and National Insurance deducted as usual. Check your employer’s maternity benefit scheme as some companies offer a higher maternity pay than the SMP. Your employment rights are also protected when on maternity leave, which includes your right to accrue holiday.

It’s a very handy sum of cash to cover daily living costs and all that baby paraphernalia. The gov.uk website has a simple online calculator to work out what you’re owed.

Your adoption leave rights

If you’re adopting a child, just like statutory leave, you are entitled to 52 weeks off work. The first 26 weeks are Ordinary Adoption Leave and the last 26 weeks are Additional Adoption Leave. The start date criteria can vary, so it’s best to check. Unfortunately only one parent can take adoption leave and one paternity leave; however you can apply for shared leave.

Paternity and shared leave low-down

Dads can choose to take one or two weeks paid paternity leave to bond with their baby, starting from the birth date or an agreed number of days afterwards, and up to 56 weeks after the birth. If dad wants more time at home with his little one, then why not try shared parental leave? This is a fantastic new benefit where both parents split the leave and pay between them. It’s of huge benefit to families where both parents work and mum and dad would both like time to bond with baby. Shared leave can only commence when the baby has been born; you can take the leave in separate blocks or share it between you. Check to see if you qualify on the gov.uk website.

Unemployed or self-employed?

Don’t panic if you can’t get SMP as you could instead receive maternity allowance. If you’re employed, self-employed and pay Class 2 National Insurance or if you’re recently unemployed, then you may qualify. Payments depend on your eligibility, with the maximum being £140.98 a week for 39 weeks. Watch out though: maternity allowance may affect the amount you get for other benefits like income support.

Other benefits on offer

More good news: there’s a range of other maternity benefits regardless of your job status. These include free NHS prescriptions and dental care during your pregnancy and for 12 months afterwards. Healthy Start provides free formula, vitamins and fruit and veg for pregnant women aged under 18 and on certain benefits. Plus there’s tax credits and child benefit available, so be sure to check for your entitlement.

Hopefully these tips will take some stress away so that you can devote more time and attention to your little bundle of joy.