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


Demographics of initial survey respondents

Of the initial 224 respondents who completed the survey, 86 (38%) indicated the child spent more than 60% of the time with them over the course of a year (a majority of parenting time), 41 (18%) said the child spent the majority of time with the other parent (more than 60% of the time over a year), 51 (23%) indicated that the parents shared parenting time (more than 40% of the time with both parents) and 47 (21%) said other. Many of the “other” responses included 100% with one parent and no contact with the other, different arrangements for school years vs summer months, and different arrangements for each child.

While the majority (153/224; 68%) indicated that child support payment arrangements were in place, more than 30% indicated that child support payments were not being transferred at the time of the survey. There were a variety of reasons provided for having no child support arrangements in place. Some respondents noted not knowing how to request child support. As one noted, “It never got discussed in court when we were in for custody.”

Some seemed intimidated by the court process to pursue child support because of the cost of going to court. Others felt intimidated by the other parent and scared to take them to court to initiate an application for child support. Some respondents noted that they tried to pursue child support, but then just gave up because the other parent “dodged the divorce” for years after the initial separation. Likewise, others said that they were unable to resolve child support because the other parent refused to cooperate. Parents discussed the inability to pay for a lawyer to go to court and they were not able to deal with the many delays due to ongoing litigation. One parent noted that when they went to court to ask for child support, the other parent made false allegations against them, withheld the child and forced them to seek legal help, all in order to avoid paying child support. The lack of disclosure of income was another reason for the lack of child support schedule, as when one parent refuses to provide correct income disclosure and/or habitually files the wrong paperwork to the court. Some respondents made their own arrangements outside of court and instead settled on a lump sum of money when they first separated and decided against further financial support.

Demographics of qualitative interview participants

The sample of the qualitative interviews was composed of 17 mothers and 17 fathers. The children’s ages ranged from 2 years old to 21 years old (one respondent indicated that they had one child in university and the other in high school) with the average age of children being 11 years of age. About two in five (14/34) indicated that they were still involved in the courts to finalize their divorce since their separation (in some cases up to six years ago), while the others had been able to come to a final divorce prior to the interview.

Despite attempting to oversample shared parenting time arrangements (reaching out to 51 parents who indicated they had shared parenting time arrangements with the other parent), only about one in five of the participants indicated shared parenting time schedules (14/34) and half of the cases involved the majority of parenting time of the children with the mother (more than 60% of the time spent in the mother’s care (17/ 34)). Two parents indicated that the children were split between the parents’ homes, and another participant indicated that they were the step-parent with no contact with the child.

Not surprising, given the fact that consent forms did not provide close to national coverage (noted above), the majority of the participants (31/34) lived in the province of Alberta, while two lived in Saskatchewan and one other lived in New Brunswick.

Knowledge about child support obligations

Overall, participants seemed knowledgeable about child support obligations, spending on children (special or extraordinary expenses, day-to-day expenses), income disclosure and determination obligations regardless of whether child support was being paid. Most parents reported gaining knowledge about child support and other related expenses on the Justice Canada website, at parent education programs, from their lawyers or from family and friends.

The majority (23/34) of the participants indicated that they had a child support payment schedule in place at the time of the interview either by court order or by agreement. If the child support payment was agreed upon in an early intervention (such as mediation, case consultation), then parents typically reported receiving payments months after separating. If the child support payment was by court order, these typically started at least a year or longer after the separation. In one situation, a father stated that he began paying child support right away without intervention because he did not want to find himself in a situation where he had to pay a lump sum for previously missed payments from the time of separation. But for many others, the initial child support payment schedule began with having to pay support dating back to the time of separation up until when the schedule was put in place. This made payment particularly challenging for individuals without disposable income, and even more so in cases that involved maintenanceFootnote24 enforcement that would involve garnishing wages and/or other penalties to recoup money owed in arrears.

Initial and ongoing disclosures

For those with child support payment schedules in place (23/34), most indicated that the initial income disclosure seemed fair and comprehensive. Parents described the initial disclosure involving both parents to disclose all sources of income, property and assets. Submitting the paperwork to the court was explained as a straightforward process, usually handled by lawyers or with assistance of court clerks. Disputes about initial disclosure often resulted in delays in the resolution of child support payments and these delays could go on for years.

Difficulties arose during the initial disclosure in cases that involved parents with ”hidden assets” (such as putting assets in their extended family’s names to avoid having to declare the assets to the other side), bank accounts in different countries, and when a parent attempted to ”liquidate their assets” prior to the disclosure. Cases that involved parents working in private practice (e.g., as consultants with incomes that would fluctuate) and/or owned multiple properties also added to the complexity of the disclosure. Disclosure was also more challenging when a parent did not believe the other parent. In some cases, this lack of trust resulted in further court involvement as the parents or their lawyers demanded further documents to prove the accuracy of the disclosure.

Challenges also occurred when the parties did not seek services to assist in establishing child support payment amounts. Very few parents engaged with accountants to scrutinize the disclosure of the other parent. The involvement of forensic accountants seemed to be typically reserved for the more complex cases, for higher income cases with multiple properties, shared businesses, and/or a lot of assets. For the most part, parents discussed conducting an informal cost-benefit analysis to determine the potential likelihood of uncovering undisclosed income from the other parent versus the cost of paying the additional legal fees. As one parent noted, it would have cost them $10,000 in legal fees to take the matter to court to show the other parent was lying about their income, only to see an increase in their monthly child support payment by a couple of hundred dollars and this did not seem reasonable to them or worth the trouble.

Most parents reported that ongoing disclosure occurred as a formality each year where they would share their income tax documents to the other parent. This sharing of income tax documents, once a divorce was finalized rarely occurred with the aid of lawyers or the courts. June seemed to be the typical month for sharing income tax documents as this gave both sides enough time to file their documents and to receive their documents indicating their gross annual income for the previous year. In shared parenting time arrangements, both parents would exchange their income tax documents. When the child lived the majority of the time with one parent, it was the other parent who typically produced their income tax documents for ongoing disclosure (this was different than the initial disclosure where both seemed to disclose regardless of the parenting arrangement).

Most parents felt that ongoing disclosure was insufficient to accurately update them about any changes in the income of the other parent. Parents explained that this ongoing disclosure was not helpful in recalculating child support payments because the parents tended not to pursue recalculations once a divorce was finalized in fear of resurfacing conflict with the other parent. Parents generally felt that the other parent could simply claim additional losses to their income tax, thus appearing that they made no additional income during the previous year. It appeared that once the divorce was finalized, parents exchanged these documents from a procedural perspective (because they had to provide the other side with the documents), but they had little intention or motivation to ramp up the dispute to sort out changes to the child support amount.

Parents, particularly those with orders from the court, expressed having little desire to bring the matter back to court to re-investigate disclosure of income (parents were either under the assumption that final orders could not be changed or had no desire to make changes once the final order was made). Parents with final orders from the court expressed that their lives often became more complicated over time, with new partners, new family obligations and with changes in parenting schedules (a few of the parents indicated that the parenting plan began as shared parenting time, but then drifted into majority of parenting time with the mother over time). For these parents, they had little desire to re-litigate previous child support arrangements even if these no longer applied because they did not want to deal with the additional emotional and financial burden of trying to update the amount of child support received. For most parents with child support payments established, little to no changes were made to the child support amounts over time. Receiving ongoing disclosure seemed to be a yearly event that did not change much in terms of the amounts owed. One of the benefits of being involved a provincial child support serviceFootnote25 is that child support would be recalculated without the need to go back to court and this allowed child support payment to be adjusted without increasing conflict between the parents.

Shared parenting time

There were 14 of the 34 respondents who indicated that they shared parenting time with the children. Several benefits of shared parenting were mentioned, including the ability to offer children two homes and the ability to negotiate the children’s extracurricular activities and corresponding expenses. These parents reported being able to put the children’s needs first and then manage a routine that seemed to benefit the children. Parents also expressed the importance of being able to assist each other in managing parenting time and activities.

Some parents chose to plan activities on their own time with the children (e.g., piano lesson while with the mother and karate lessons while with the father), while others indicated that they made joint decisions about the children’s activities so that there would be no disruption of time devoted to the activities based on the parenting time. While considered to be a strength of the joint decision-making responsibility to have both parents involved, having to negotiate every activity in terms of whether the child could participate and how they would pay for the activity, made decisions about extracurricular activities more complicated, especially when the parents were sharing decision-making responsibility but were engaged in higher levels of conflict.

Expenses for parents with shared parenting time

One of the biggest challenges for parents in shared parenting time arrangements was the expectation that they could just negotiate the child support payment amounts and all of the additional expenses with little to no outside assistance. Attempts to negotiate activities and expenses related to their children seemed to exacerbate tensions for some parents who were already struggling to manage shared decision-making responsibilities for their children.

Another challenge was the lack of follow-through when parents had to negotiate and renegotiate over time. Frustrations expressed by parents in shared parenting time arrangements was also having to pay for childcare expenses while the child was in the care of the other parent when it was believed that the child would have been better with them rather than pay somebody else to care for their children.

Other expenses seemed to be less conflictual for parents who shared parenting time and these expenses seemed just part of instrumental parenting duties, such as paying for medical needs, dental care, health-related expenses such as orthodontic treatment, eyeglasses and prescriptions. Typically, shared parenting time arrangements kept the children on their benefits and so both parents could pay or the person with the benefits would pay because it was not coming out of pocket.

If the child was involved in therapy, it was also generally shared by the parents, as well as educational programs that meet the child's particular needs. The majority of parents had some post-secondary education savings for the children in case their children eventually pursued college or university.

Typologies of non-transferring child support

Consistent with the initial survey of the 224 respondents, there were approximately 30% of the cases where there was no transferring of child support from one parent to the other after separation. While there were different reasons provided by the participants about why there was no child support payment schedule in place, these reasons could be explained within four broad typologies that emerged from the participants’ experiences. These typologies seem to fall within a quadrant of the level of court involvement of the parents and the level of risk of conflict and/or family violence (see Figure 1).

For low risk and low court involvement, parenting plans were typically agreed upon outside of the courts and/or dispute resolution services. These parents agreed on a parenting plan for their children and negotiated child support. Rather than begin monthly child support payments, some parents decided to pay a lump sum at the onset with an agreement that the other parent would not ask for additional funds. When parents agreed to shared parenting time, they typically waived the allocation of child support because the children lived with both parents equally and because the parents felt that the child support guidelines did not apply to their specific circumstance. In other situations, it was decided that one parent, usually the mother, would have the majority of parenting time with the children and the other parent would not seek shared parenting time or extra time with the children with the understanding that no child support would be sought. In some of these cases, the mother received some money from the other parent but this was infrequent and of varying amounts.

Figure 1: Typologies of Non-Transferring Child Support Cases

Non-Transferring Child Support Grid
  Court Involvement
  Low High
Level of Risk Low Parents make their own plans outside of court and are either not aware of child support obligations or they negotiate alternatives (e.g., shared parenting time, lump sum). Courts are involved to resolve child support issues, but not until months after separation and/or child support is secondary to purpose of pursuing the court’s assistance.
High A parent feels intimidated to use the courts to seek child support in fear of retribution (e.g., coercive control, patterns of family violence). Courts are involved to resolve child support, but high conflict separation prolongs litigation over several months / years and no child support determined.

For low risk and high court involvement, parents reported low risk of conflict and/or family violence between the parents but waited several months before turning to the court for assistance with parenting plan schedules and child support. Once involved in the court process, they experienced significant delays and returns to court to ensure all the documents were in order. Other parents engaged in the courts early after their separation to resolve financial issues and parenting plan schedules, but then would not return to court to address concerns of inconsistent child support payments or outdated parenting plan arrangements as the children aged. For example, a few parents used the court initially and began in a shared parenting time arrangement, but then as the children got older, they began spending more time with one parent. But given that the child support was set for shared parenting time, the child support payments were not set for a majority of parenting time arrangement. Given that these parents did not want to engage in conflict with the other parent and/or use the court system to amend the child support payments, they just accepted the lack of child support.

For high risk and low court involvement, parents reported high risk of family violence in the relationship with their ex-partners and they reported fear of the other parent retaliating against them if they pursued child support through the courts. This fear was especially pronounced for victims of violence who had recently immigrated to Canada and felt isolated with little support. Some parents indicated feeling threatened that the other parent would attempt to take the children away from them if they sought child support or requested any other financial compensation. Many of these parents spoke of financial hardships and sacrifices they made by leaving the matrimonial home with the children to keep them safe. These parents had to find creative ways to provide for their children without the assistance of child support payments, including “maxing out lines of credit”, going into debt, having to borrow money from family members, and having to get multiple jobs to help pay for the bills. On the other side of these cases, non-payors justified not providing child support payments because they could not guarantee that the other parent would be using the money to support the children. As one parent indicated, they would have no problem paying child support if they were given assurances that the money would be spent on the children and “not on cigarettes.”

For high conflict and high court involvement, parents usually dragged out the court process for many years to avoid paying child support and any other financial assistance. Typically, in these cases, one side was requesting a 50/50 parenting time arrangement and the other side was requesting majority of parenting time with the children. Until the parenting plan was determined by the court, it would be unclear how much child support would be paid and so the parties continued to litigate without child support payments in place. From the side of the parent requesting majority of parenting time with the children, they typically spoke about their concerns of how the other side was using the court system to avoid having to pay child support and about the negative impact of the prolonged involvement in the courts. One parent talked about using up their legal aid certificate and then having to self-represent themselves in court because they could not afford the legal expenses. From the side of the parents requesting shared parenting time, they felt that the other side was refusing their suggested parenting time arrangements to force them to pay more child support than they may have otherwise paid within a shared parenting time arrangement. These parents typically were frustrated that the courts were not doing enough to move their case along and the legal costs of pursuing more time with their children in the courts. One parent who had not paid child support because they were waiting for the court to decide the parenting time arrangements, stated they had already spent over $70,000 in legal fees.

Special or extraordinary expenses

The payment of special or extraordinary expenses seemed to be connected to whether or not child support payment arrangements were in place. For high conflict parents with child support payment schedules in place, many of these parents used maintenance enforcement services to collect and disburse both child support and special or extraordinary expenses.

For lower conflict parents, they seemed to notify each other of the upcoming activities and expenses so that they could discuss how best to divide the cost. This typically included discussions about the merit of the activity (e.g., should the child be allowed to be involved in swimming lessons) and then a negotiation of payment for the activity. While these decisions for payment seemed generally governed by the proportional income of the parents, the other major factor in the decision seemed to be related to the proportional value that a parent placed on an activity (e.g., it was decided in one family that the father would pay for hockey because he wanted the child to be in hockey more than the mother).

While the ratio of the payor was typically set (e.g., 70/30) based on the allocation of child support, if parents had joint decision-making responsibility, they would first need to agree on the cost before they were both responsible for the cost. One area of conflict seemed to be regarding the cost of childcare. The other parent often complained about having to pay for another person to care for this child rather than being allowed to care for the child during these times. When asked about the benefits of childcare, they were hard pressed to come up with any benefits for the child. Other sources of conflict seemed to be related to ‘big ticket items’ such as horseback riding, dance lessons, swimming, and hockey.

Experiences with services, lawyers and supportsFootnote26

As a group, the participants indicated that they were not satisfied with their experiences with the services offered to them to help them understand the rules about child support and their implications. Those who were self-represented spoke of frustrations of not being able to sufficiently educate themselves about the requirements of child support. While participants with lawyers were generally concerned about the legal fees and cost needed to resolve child support disputes and the time it took to resolve these disputes. Participants who attended mediation reported feeling pressured to reach a settlement regarding child support amounts and many did not feel they had sufficient opportunity to seek legal advice in making these decisions in mediation. Agreeing to a child support payment early in the process often had negative consequences for these participants as they spoke about the lack of change to child support amounts once determined in mediation.

The majority of the participants recalled attending a parent information session at the time of filing their court documents, but none of them recalled receiving specific information related to child support. They recalled that the information sessions focussed more generally on the process of the courts and the opportunities to settle, but did not provide them sufficient information about how to resolve child support issues quickly and efficiently. Most participants viewed the lack of information about child support early in the process as a missed opportunity.

Parents who felt supported usually referred to extended family members, friends, support groups and their faith. Participants suggested that additional services would have been helpful to navigate child support issues at the point of separation so they could have made better and more informed decisions regarding child support. Parents believed that information about child support was as important to information about resolving conflict and keeping their children out of their disputes as it was suggested that resolving child support issues quickly and early in the process could help to ameliorate expectations, reduce boundary ambiguity, reduce inter-parental conflict and help parents adjust to their separation.