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

Executive summary

Background: 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. Both federal and provincial legislative regimes provide that parents owe an obligation to support their children. Child support orders and the resulting financial consequences for children and parents are topics that are among the least studied in family law, with very little attention in Canada.

Purpose of the Study: The purpose of this study was to collect direct feedback from parents on child support and related issues.

Methodology: This project included a brief survey to assess eligibility to participate in a qualitative interview, followed by in-depth interviews with parents about their experiences of child support. Participants were initially recruited by Justice Canada based on participants’ consent to be contacted following their participation at a parenting education or mediation service between 2018 and 2021. Interview questions included questions related to the experiences with child support, including on issues such as parenting time arrangements, income disclosure, income determination, and special or extraordinary expenses. Questions also explored the participants’ level of knowledge of and experience with child support obligations and solutions that were considered helpful in resolving disputes related to their child support issues. The individual semi-structured interviews were recorded and transcribed. Consistent with grounded theory methods, initial coding categories of information were completed by reading line-by-line all transcripts. By employing a constant comparative approach, the data were continually examined using open, axial and selective coding until no new data provided insight.

Key Findings: There were 224 respondents who completed the surveys in English (none in French) and of these, 216 provided contact information (telephone number/email). For the qualitative interviews, there were 147 emails sent out to invite the survey respondents to participate in the interviews, including all 51 parents who indicated shared parenting time arrangements. This led to 34 qualitative interviews conducted for the qualitative arm of this study, including 17 mothers and 17 fathers with children who ranged in ages from 2 years old to 21 years old (mean age: 11 years old).

In the qualitative interviews, participants who did not receive child support (but should have; 30% of cases), provided various explanations for why child support was not being paid including:

  • A lack of understanding about child support, specifically confusion regarding whether child support would apply in shared parenting time arrangements.
  • Feeling intimidated by court processes resulting in not initiating an application.
  • Concerns about the costs involved in going to court, or lack of resources to pay a lawyer.
  • Giving up on efforts to pursue support because the other side did not comply or refused to cooperate for significant amounts of time, even years following the separation.
  • Lack of income disclosure was noted as a barrier to receiving an order for support.
  • Making their own arrangements outside of court when they first separated (lump sum) and did not pursue further support.

Other issues that emerged included misinformation about how child support is arranged in shared parenting time arrangements, the drifting of children back into majority of parenting time with a parent over time, and the lack of annual assessments of income when these plans are made outside of the court.

Conclusions: This is the first known study in Canada to explore the views of parents regarding their experiences with child support issues. Several issues related to child support that were shared by the respondents need further exploration in the research, including the context of shared parenting time arrangements, the experiences of victims of family violence, and reasons why some parents are not fulfilling their child support responsibilities post separation and divorce. Further research is needed to address ongoing myths and misunderstandings about child support in the context of shared parenting time.