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Wise up to maternity benefits

Having a baby is the biggest decision in your life. Luckily, Ireland has one of the world's most developed and generous maternity systems, vastly improved over the years. Although we're a long way off from our Scandinavian counterparts, we still enjoy plenty of state help, but how easy is it to find?

According to Laura Erskine, mum-in-residence for MummyPages.ie: "Many mums miss out on valuable benefits due to a lack of knowledge on entitlements. The complex nature of various departments looking after child and family benefits means that lots of Irish parents aren't claiming what they can, such as Home Carers Tax Credits or the 18 weeks unpaid parental leave. This can be used by parents who struggle with childcare costs to try to create a shorter working week by combining parental leave and annual leave one day a week for a period of up to two years."

So, what else is there?

Maternity Benefit

l Paid by the Department of Social Protection for 26 weeks (two of which are before baby's birth). The current rate is €235 pw, but an employer can pay you your full salary and you refund them the benefit. It is taxable, but without PRSI or USC deduction. If it's your sole income, you won't pay tax though. You must apply two to 16 weeks before the expected delivery date at welfare.ie. l You can engage in voluntary work during your leave, but paid work will result in the benefit ceasing. l You are entitled to free mother and baby care, irrespective of medical card or private insurance. For this you receive combined GP/obstetrician visits (one prior to 12 weeks, five during pregnancy and two post-natal). A public health nurse will also visit six weeks after birth. l You are entitled to give birth at no cost in a public maternity hospital.

Parental Leave l Parents are entitled to 18 weeks unpaid leave until the child is eight (or 16 if s/he has a chronic illness or disability). You must take this leave in batches of six weeks at a time but your employer can agree to a different arrangement. Many mums like to reduce work to a four day week, if they are allowed. You must give six weeks notice, and the leave is dependent on your PRSI contributions.

Home Carers Tax Credit l It's often believed this can only be claimed if your child is ill, but it's not so. Anyone who is a 'stay at home' spouse/partner can claim it, if their own earnings are under €7,200 pa. The credit is €1,100 pa and is granted as long as your child is in receipt of Child Benefit. It is not means tested.

Child Benefit l Children's allowance is paid monthly, tax free, to the mother of the child. The current rate is €140 per child, with added amounts for multiple births. It must be claimed within 12 months of baby's birth and is payable until age 16 (or 18, if they are in full-time education).

Home Makers Scheme l This is a facility which preserves contributions towards the State Contributory Pension. It is, in effect, a 'disregard' of years, if you take a career break to care for children under 12. Up to 20 years can be disregarded as long as you apply for it in the year you leave work. Revenue can allow retrospective claims, after new rules were passed last year, so it's worth asking.

One Parent Family Payment l This is a means-tested benefit payable to those caring alone for children under seven, and earning less than €425 pw (including any maintenance payments). The new rate is €193 pw plus €29.80 for the child.

Barnardos has a fantastic parenting book, free on its site (barnardos.ie). Visit citizensinformation.ie for all benefits.

Irish Independent