Separated and divorced parents’ experiences with child support and related issues


Separation is a challenging and difficult time emotionally and financially and can negatively impact people’s abilities to move forward in their parenting relationships post-separation. Adjusting emotionally and financially to the separation can be further hindered by the lack of resolution regarding child support.

The majority of the parents interviewed who eventually received child support payments from the other parent, had to wait several months and/or years from the date of separation to begin the child support payments process and usually not until an application was formally made to the court that included a provision for child support.

The proportion reporting that they are owed child support is concerning. In both the survey and qualitative interviews, approximately 30% of cases involved a non-payment of child support. This is consistent with American research that has found that despite efforts to strengthen child support enforcement over the past decades, the level of unpaid child support remains high.Footnote27

Participants in this study provided various explanations for this high level of unpaid child support including the increases in shared parenting time, increases in the number of other parents who have low incomes (or incomes lower than the parent with the majority of parenting time), and the decision to not use the court to settle their disputes.

One of the findings in this study is that parents may make their own shared parenting time arrangements outside of the courts and not include a child support schedule with the assumption that child support is not required or does not apply to, shared parenting time arrangements.

A better understanding of the factors that are associated with the non-payment of child support and issues around compliance with payments can help strengthen interventions and services so as to best assist families in resolving these disputes.

The connection between family violence and child support is often discussed anecdotally, but there is little research. The current research identified a link based on the small sample of cases involving unpaid child support where some form of family violence was reported. More research is needed to explore the impact of violence on child support issues. Also, more research is needed to determine how to provide safe ways for parents to pursue child support when there is a risk of, or pre-existing family violence victims and on how to provide child support services safely to survivors.


Similar to other studies, there are limitations to the information collected. This study reports on 224 parent surveys and thirty-four follow-up interviews with individuals who were voluntarily recruited, using non-random sampling strategies. No national representation, non-random sampling and sample size is small. Therefore, the sample may not be fully representative of the diversity of parents post-separation, as the sample was drawn from parent education and mediation services where parents were already involved in the initial steps of the family justice services. It would be important to follow participants over the duration of their disputes to understand more about what was helpful and what was not. Moreover, parents who separate and are able to negotiate post-separation child support, with either a lawyer or between themselves, but without going to court, may provide different experiences.

Since data regarding the income level of the participants were not included, financial considerations (such as those who can and cannot afford a lawyer) were not fully addressed in this study. Some participants expressed not being able to afford a lawyer, while others indicated spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on their legal fees.

The vast majority of the participants lived in Alberta and there were no French surveys completed. This research used a small sample of parents, mostly from Alberta. While it was able to raise many issues for further study, the findings have limited generalizability to parents in Alberta and to other provinces and territories. Future research should target all provinces and territories to explore child support issues across Canada as the sample seems more of a provincial snapshot than a national exploration of child support issues.

Despite these limitations, the findings highlight that participants were generally familiar with the child support guidelines and how to apply the guidelines. While the majority of the participants used these guidelines to determine the amount of child support and Section 7 expenses, there were many variations of the application of these guidelines based on case-specific circumstances. Several participants expressed frustration both in terms of enforcing support and compliance.

Future research

Child support has typically been considered a legal matter. With the emotional outpouring of the participants about their experiences of child support challenges, it is important that future research considers child support disputes as an important factor when considering financial abuse, financial stress and overall adjustment post-separation. Child support issues are a gateway into the heart of the conflict and provides an important lens for assessing and intervening in cases that involve family violence, high conflict, parent-child relationships, and parenting plan arrangements. This research should involve speaking directly with parents about their experiences with child support as this is a pathway into understanding the complexity of the family and will support future policy development.

Given the high rates of unpaid child support found in this study, future research should consider exploring interventions that can best increase awareness of child support obligations, improve attitudes towards the payment of child support and decrease compliance issues.

Further research is needed to better understand the distribution of special expenses across parenting arrangements and decision-making authority. In this study, while many parents were able to create proportional payment plans for special expenses based on their level of income and parenting time, there were examples of disputes about the items that could and should be covered as special expenses. Certain items seemed to fuel more conflict than others, including decisions regarding childcare and extracurricular activities. Other expense items were not frequently mentioned, but did create additional conflicts when in dispute, including orthodontic care, children’s therapeutic services and summer camp. Further guidance from the research on the above issues would be helpful.

More research is needed to understand arrangements for shared parenting time, and how child support figures into those decisions. As shared parenting time becomes more common for separating families looking for the ideal parenting arrangement, there remains controversies and debates about which type of parenting time arrangement is best for each child. And, based on the current research, child support is one of the factors that can play an important role in those decisions, but at the same time are this consideration does not necessarily centre around the best interests of the children.