02/07/2015 12:36 BST | Updated 02/07/2015 12:59 BST

Maternity Leave: Your Rights Explained

Maternity leave: Your rights explained

Whether you are employed or self employed, you are entitled to money while you take time off to care for your new baby. If the whole maternity leave thing is leaving you a bit baffled, fear not. Here are your rights, in black and white. Deep breath now...

What are Statutory Maternity Pay and Statutory Maternity Leave?

Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) is the minimum amount of money an employed mother is entitled to when she takes time off to have her baby. To qualify for it, you must have worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks up to the 15th week (known as the qualifying week) before your due date, and you must earn on average at least £107 per week.

SMP differs from Statutory Maternity Leave (SML). SML is the amount of time off which a working mother is entitled to – which is 26 weeks ordinary maternity leave, and 26 weeks additional maternity leave, totalling 52 weeks. But should she take a full year, not all of it will be paid.

What do I need to do to get it?

The first thing to do is tell your employer you are pregnant! Some mums are surprised to learn that they are under no obligation to officially tell their employer about their pregnancy until 15 weeks before the date their baby is due – and some women, for various reasons, do choose to hold off until then.

That said, you can imagine it might be rather difficult to disguise a pregnancy up until this time. What's more, with the challenges pregnancy can bring (tiredness, sickness, clumsiness, er... forgetfulness!) it could work in your favour to tell your employer sooner rather than later (assuming they're generous of spirit) because they'll hopefully make a few allowances.

An employer is also obliged to give a pregnant woman paid leave to attend antenatal appointments (and antenatal classes, if they have been recommended by a doctor or midwife), so many women tell work as soon as they have had their 12-14 week scan.

Believe it or not, you do also have to prove you are pregnant. Twenty weeks before you are due, your midwife should give you a maternity certificate, the MATB1 form, which is essentially medical evidence for your employer showing that you are indeed pregnant (it's not a bowling ball up your jumper) and the date on which your baby is due.

How long will my leave be and when will it start?

SMP is paid for 39 weeks, from a fixed start date. You need to tell your employer (at least 28 days before you want SMP to start) that you intend to have time off work with your baby, and also confirm when you want your payments to begin.

Some women want to work as close as they can to their due date, while others want to have a few weeks to rest and prepare before their baby arrives – but you cannot start your leave more than 11 weeks before your baby is due. Your employer will probably ask you to put everything in writing.

You do not have to take the full 39 weeks, you might choose at the outset to return to work sooner. All this is to be agreed between you and your employer. You may also decide to extend your leave past 39 weeks – you are entitled to take 52 weeks SML, but the remaining 13 weeks will be unpaid.

Incidentally, you can not take no time off at all – Compulsory Maternity Leave means you must take two weeks off after your baby is born (or four weeks if you work in a factory).

If you wish to make any changes to the dates you initially agreed with your employer, including extending your leave to the full year, you must give 28 days' notice.

In addition, if, because of your pregnancy, you need to take time off during the four weeks before your due date, your employer can forcibly start your leave from that point.

Maternity leave: Your rights explained

How much will I get?

SMP is paid for up to 39 weeks: for the first six weeks, you will receive 90 of your average gross weekly earnings, whichever is lower.

This is the minimum amount you will receive. If your company has its own maternity scheme, you could receive more.

You'll receive the money in the same way you would normally be paid your wages or salary, and tax and national insurance will be deducted at source.

What if I decide not to return to work?

If you decide, at the end of your leave, that you do not wish to return to work (you will need to give your employer notice, see above), you will not have to pay back any of your SMP.

If, however, you have been receiving money from your company's own maternity scheme, which has paid you more than SMP would have, you might be obliged to pay some money back. This you will need to discuss with your employer.

What if I am self employed/freelance?

If you are self-employed/freelance (or if you are employed, but do not meet the SMP criteria) you will not be entitled to SMP but might instead be able to claim Maternity Allowance (MA).

You may be eligible for MA if you're registered as self employed, are paying Class 2 National Insurance Contributions, or hold a Small Earnings Exception certificate, of if you have recently been employed or self employed.

You also may be eligible if you have been employed or self employed for at least 26 weeks of the 66 weeks up to, and including, the week before your baby is due (confused? Get the jotter notepad out...) – and parts of weeks count as full weeks. You need to have had average earnings of at least £30 per week over any 13 weeks of that 66-week period.

Have you chucked the jotter notepad in the bin yet?

Don't worry, you can use the HMRC Maternity Pay calculator here.

MA works in much the same way as SMP. It is also paid for a maximum of 39 weeks, at a standard rate of £135.45 per week, or 90% of your average gross weekly earnings, whichever is the smaller amount.

The money will be paid every two, or every four, weeks directly into your bank account and you cannot start receiving MA any earlier than 11 weeks before your due date.

If you believe you are eligible to claim MA, you can download the necessary MA1 form here. It's worth being aware that if you claim MA, it could affect other benefits you are receiving, and from April 2013, benefits are going to be capped.

If you are not eligible for MA, you might be eligible for Employment and Support Allowance instead.

Maternity leave: Your rights explained

What are my employment rights when pregnant?

There are many laws in place to keep you safe, and ensure you are treated fairly at work when you are pregnant. Read all about your rights here.

What are my rights when on maternity leave?

While you are on leave, looking after your baby, your employment rights should be unaffected. In other words, most of what you're entitled to while working stands while you are on leave. An exception is pension contributions, which would not be paid during any period of unpaid maternity leave.

You continue to accrue holiday while on maternity leave as you would if you were at work. You can discuss with your employer whether to add those days on to your leave (fully paid, of course).

You are also allowed, when on leave, to work for 10 days on full pay. These are known as Keeping in Touch (KIT) days. KIT days do not affect your SML.

Read more about your rights when on SML here.

What happens when I return to work?

If you return to work after 26 weeks of ordinary maternity leave, you have the right to return to your old job exactly as it was. If you go into the next 26 weeks of additional maternity leave, your employer must offer you either your old job, with the same conditions, or a similar one (meaning either the same conditions, or better).

What if I am being made redundant?

You can be made redundant while on maternity leave if your job has, essentially, ceased to exist. You would be entitled to the same redundancy rights as if you were at work.

However, your employer can not in any way use your maternity leave as a reason to make you redundant and they are obligated to offer you an alternative position if one exists, even if others are more suitable for the role.

ACAS has produced a booklet explaining maternity rights and redundancy, so do read it if you feel you are being treated unfairly.

I'm on maternity leave – and pregnant again!

Yes. I did this. I managed to get a few weeks' work in between babies! If you become pregnant again while on maternity leave, you are entitled to SML and SMP with your next baby.

Maternity Action has produced an information sheet explaining what you're entitled to, how to work things out if your periods of leave are likely to overlap, and whether you could fill the gap between your SMLs with other leave (such as parental leave or annual holiday).

Make the most of your magical maternity leave!

More on HuffPost Parents: Paternity leave: Extended to four years on full pay?