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


Once a couple separates, they consider the division of their property, how they will care for their children, and what financial support is needed for the children. There are several different ways that decisions regarding property division, parenting arrangements and child support may be made by the parents.

Children need the financial support of both parents, even after separation or divorce, and both parents have the joint obligation to provide that support according to their ability to do so. The term “child support” refers to the amount of money one parent pays to another to support their child financially after a separation or divorce.Footnote1

In Canada, both federal and provincial legislative regimes provide that parents have an obligation to support their children financially after divorce or separation. Family law is an area of shared responsibility between the federal, provincial, and territorial governments. The Divorce Act applies when people divorce. Provincial and territorial laws apply when unmarried couples separate or when married couples separate but do not divorce. Rules relating to the calculation of child support are found in child support guidelines. There are Federal Child Support Guidelines (Federal Guidelines) and provincial/territorial child support guidelines. In general, the Federal Guidelines apply when married parents divorce. Provincial or territorial child support guidelines apply when there is no divorce. Provincial child support guidelines also apply in cases of divorce when both divorcing parents live in the province of Manitoba, New Brunswick or Quebec.Footnote2

Review of the social science research on child support

Despite the widespread interest in divorce, and its antecedents and consequences, child support orders and the resulting financial consequences for children and parents are topics that are among the least studied, with very little attention in Canada.Footnote3 Many of the social science research referred to in this paper are from other countries, including the United States and Australia. Xu, L., et al.Footnote4 note in an American study, that a growing body of literature has been documenting the importance of child support for children's wellbeing. Some of that literature explains that higher payment levels of child support post separation and divorce are associated with significantly lower odds of poor or declining health status of children, regardless of total family income and visitation patterns of the other parent.Footnote5

Child support as a gendered phenomenon

Research shows that child support typically involves fathers transferring funds to mothers who have a larger proportion of parenting time and decision-making responsibility after separation and divorce.Footnote6 A small Canadian study of court orders from 2018-19 indicated that just over 1 in 2 mothers (56%) had sole physical custodyFootnote7 of all the children in the family, while one in three cases resulted in shared physical custodyFootnote8 and fathers had sole physical custody in 7% of cases, the remaining 2% of families had split custody arrangements.Footnote9Footnote10

Due to the high incidence of poverty among single-mother families after family breakdown, most countries have a variety of policies designed to increase mother-led households' income security, including child support.Footnote11

American studies show that child support has been found to be a critical source of income for children living in single-mother households.Footnote12 Stirling and AldrichFootnote13 for example, found that mothers who are with the children less than 40% of the time receive a much smaller amount of support than fathers in the same situation, both in terms of the absolute dollar amount and as a percentage of the payor’s income.

Inconsistencies in child support transfers

Despite policy efforts, in a wide range of countries the majority of families where there is one parent with the majority of parenting time with the children do not always receive child support transfers from the other parent.Footnote14 Unfortunately, very few studies have been conducted in Canada and so the transferability of this research remains unknown.

Conversely, child support litigation can also be used as a tactic to avoid or delay paying child support by deliberately prolonging a case by manipulating finances, and distorting information.Footnote15 Based on a study involving 4,000 divorces in Wisconsin, Meyer, et al.Footnote16 found that changes in parenting schedules, relative incomes, and the freedom to choose child support explained almost half of the decline in the likelihood of orders, but about half remained unexplained. They noted that changes towards shared parenting (both time with the children and decision-making) were particularly important in explaining the trend.

Child support and shared decision-making

Parents with shared decision-making are expected to make major decisions for their child together, regardless of the time the children spend with each parent. In the US, when parents share legal decision-making for their children, there tends to be an increase in child support payments by about $170 a year and a higher compliance ratio by 5 percentage points.Footnote17

Child support and shared parenting time

In Canada, shared parenting time refers to arrangements where a child spends at least 40 percent of the time with each parent, whereas majority of parenting time refers to arrangements where a child spends more than 60 percent of the time with one parent.Footnote18 While there is a lack of studies in Canada that have explored child support and shared parenting time after separation and divorce, US studies have documented that shared parenting timeFootnote19 can decrease the amount of child support transfers.Footnote20For example, Fehlberg, et al. explored the long-term financial impacts of shared parenting by examining links between shared parenting and child support arrangements over time and found that long-term child support payments depended on several factors: the quality of the post-separation relationship, the role of new partners, and parents' level of commitment to their children (including their willingness and capacity to financially support them). Fehlberg, et al. also found that children tended to drift back into a majority of parenting time arrangement with one parent (usually mothers), but these children were more financially disadvantaged if child support payments were not increased to reflect the new schedules.Footnote21


In the last several years, very little information has been collected directly from parents regarding their experiences with child support and the family justice system in Canada. The purpose of this study was to explore the experiences of parents with different parenting arrangements, including shared parenting time arrangements, with child support and related issues.