Child Support Arrears
When a person who is obliged to pay child support fails to meet some or all of that obligation, a debt begins to accumulate and the amount owing is called the payor's arrears of child support.
People generally have two different goals when arrears begin to mount up: the person responsible for paying support likely wants the court to reduce or cancel the arrears, while the person receiving the support will want the court to force the payor to pay what's owing.
This section provides an introduction to the problem of child support arrears. It also discusses the reduction and cancellation of arrears and the collection of arrears.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 The reduction and cancellation of arrears
- 3 Collecting arrears of support
- 4 Resources and links
If child support is owed under a court order or an agreement, a failure to pay the support owing is a breach of that order or agreement, and, in the case of orders, it's contempt of court as well. The courts and society as a whole place a high value on the financial support of children, and both take an extremely dim view of anyone who defaults on such an obligation in the absence of a very good excuse or some very compelling circumstances.
A person who owes arrears of child support, a payor, will likely be interested in the ways that the outstanding amount can be reduced, while a person to whom support is owing, a recipient, will be interested in collecting on the arrears.
A person who owes arrears will generally have a difficult time convincing the court to forgive all or some of their debt. On the other hand, collecting arrears can be difficult as well, if for no other reason than you can't get blood from a stone. Unless the payor has another source of funds to draw upon, a recipient may discover that the outstanding support may never be recovered.
Despite these barriers and obstacles, it is possible for a payor to have their arrears reduced and, sometimes, cancelled altogether. At the same time, recipients have access to some very powerful and effective enforcement tools to collect outstanding arrears of support.
Orders for support
Orders for the payment of child support are enforceable like any other order of the court. Someone who breaches a Supreme Court order can be punished for contempt of court. As well, under the Family Law Act, the Supreme Court and the Provincial Court can:
- require the payor to:
- provide security for their compliance with the court order,
- pay any expenses incurred by the recipient as a result of the payor's actions,
- pay up to $5,000 for the benefit of another party or a child whose interests were affected by the payor's actions,
- pay up to $5,000 as a fine, or
- if nothing else will ensure the payor's compliance with the order, jail the payor for up to 30 days.
Unfortunately for people who would rather be jailed than pay, s. 231(3)(c) says that:
imprisonment of a person under this section does not discharge any duties of the person owing under an order.
Since orders for support require the payment of money, arrears can also be enforced as a judgment debt under the provincial Court Order Enforcement Act and the Family Maintenance Enforcement Act. By s. 3(1)(l) of the Act, there is no limitation period for enforcement of child support arrears.
Payors can apply for an order reducing arrears that have accumulated under a court order under both the Divorce Act and the Family Law Act. Such applications must be made using the Act under which the support order was made.
Agreements for support
Arrears that have accumulated under a separation agreement are owed as a result of a contractual obligation to provide support. A separation agreement is a contract that can be enforced in the courts just like any other contract.
Agreements for support are most easily enforced by filing them in court, after which they can be enforced as if they were court orders. Although agreements can still be enforced under the law of contracts, it's a lot simpler to file them in court. Section 148(2) of the Family Law Act says:
A written agreement respecting child support that is filed in the court is enforceable under this Act and the Family Maintenance Enforcement Act as if it were an order of the court.
Payors can apply under s. 174 of the Family Law Act for an order reducing arrears that have accumulated under an agreement that has been filed in court just like they can for arrears accumulating under an order.
The Family Maintenance Enforcement Program
Although recipients can enforce orders and agreements for child support on their own, most of the time recipients will give that job to the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program (FMEP). This is a provincial government program under the provincial Family Maintenance Enforcement Act which has been contracted out to an American company, Maximus (Themis).
FMEP is a free service for recipients whose purpose is to enforce child support and Section 7 expenses (special and extraordinary expenses). Please note that enforcement of Section 7 expenses through FMEP is not straightforward. You should contact FMEP to ask what they can or cannot do with respect to Section 7 expenses.
FMEP has no ability to change the orders and agreements that are filed with it for enforcement, although it will make important, judge-like decisions about who is and isn't entitled to receive child support in cases of children over 19. FMEP cannot increase or decrease the amount of a child support obligation and it cannot reduce or cancel arrears of child support. If you are a payor who wishes to apply to court to reduce or cancel child support arrears, and the FMEP is involved in your case, you must serve FMEP as well as the recipient with your application.
The reduction and cancellation of arrears
Payors may apply to court to have their arrears cancelled or reduced. Technically, this is in some ways an application to retroactively vary the order or agreement for child support under which the arrears accumulated rather than an independent order about the arrears.
Arrears under the Divorce Act
If you have read the section in this chapter on Making Changes to Child Support, know that an application to cancel or reduce arrears is much the same kind of application as one to vary a child support order where the Divorce Act is involved. It's made pursuant to section 17.
The Divorce Act does not deal expressly with arrears. Applications to reduce arrears under this act are simply variation applications. The test the court will apply is similar to the test it applies for orders under the Family Law Act. It is difficult to persuade the court to cancel arrears, as you will see in the next section.
Arrears under the Family Law Act
Unlike the Divorce Act, the Family Law Act deals with the question of arrears directly. Section 174(1) of the act says this:
(1) On application, a court may reduce or cancel arrears owing under an agreement or order respecting child support or spousal support if satisfied that it would be grossly unfair not to reduce or cancel the arrears.
(2) For the purposes of this section, the court may consider
(a) the efforts of the person responsible for paying support to comply with the agreement or order respecting support,
(b) the reasons why the person responsible for paying support cannot pay the arrears owing, and
(c) any circumstances that the court considers relevant.
(3) If a court reduces arrears under this section, the court may order that interest does not accrue on the reduced arrears if satisfied that it would be grossly unfair not to make such an order.
(4) If a court cancels arrears under this section, the court may cancel interest that has accrued, under section 11.1 of the Family Maintenance Enforcement Act, on the cancelled arrears if satisfied that it would be grossly unfair not to cancel the accrued interest.
A similar section of the old Family Relations Act was described as a "complete code" regarding the reduction or cancellation of arrears under that Act, meaning that the only ground on which a court could reduce or cancel arrears was "gross unfairness," as set out in s. 96(2). The courts will probably take the same approach to s. 174 of the Family Law Act.
The courts have interpreted "gross unfairness" under the Family Relations Act to mean that the payor is not only incapable of repaying the arrears but is also unlikely to be able to repay them in the foreseeable future without suffering severe financial hardship.
If you are asking the court to make an order reducing arrears, you must be prepared to prove that it would be not just unfair, but grossly unfair for you to have to pay off the arrears, and you must be prepared to address the criteria set out in s. 174(2):
- What efforts have you made to pay the child support you were required to pay?
- Why did you wait until arrears had accumulated before you tried to vary the child support order?
- Why can you not pay your arrears now?
- Are there any other circumstances, such as catastrophic business losses or the unintended loss of your employment, changes in the children's residence, or new financial obligations in relation to your family that the court should take into account?
Be prepared to provide to the court a financial statement (Form F8 in the Supreme Court and Form 4 in the Provincial Court) that summarizes all of your assets and debts, and income and expenses, if you intend to show the court that you cannot pay your arrears. Complete financial disclosure is absolutely essential.
The leading case that set out the legal principles with respect to cancellation of arrears in British Columbia is Earle v. Earle, 1999 CanLii 6914 (BCSC).
Collecting arrears of support
The collection of debts and enforcement of judgments occupies a whole course at law school and is not a simple matter. The provincial government has, however, established an agency responsible for enforcing support obligations, the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program. Someone who is entitled to receive child or spousal support under an order or agreement can sign up with this program and the program will tend to the enforcement of the support order or agreement without a great deal of further involvement on the part of the recipient.
FMEP is free for recipients. All you have to do is file your order or separation agreement (which first needs to be filed in court — you can do that by attending at the court registry and asking them to file the agreement) with the program and fill out an application form. FMEP will take the matter from there, and the program is authorized by the Family Maintenance Enforcement Act to take whatever legal steps are required to enforce an ongoing support obligation, and track and collect on any unpaid support, plus interest accumulating on those arrears.
Under the Family Maintenance Enforcement Act, FMEP has the authority to commence and conduct any court proceedings that can be undertaken by a private creditor, as well as some unique actions that the program alone can take. Among FMEP's collection powers are:
- garnishing the payor's wages,
- collecting from a corporation wholly owned by the payor,
- redirecting federal and provincial payments owed to the payor, like GST or income tax rebates, to the recipient,
- prohibiting a payor from renewing their driver's licence,
- directing the federal government to refuse to issue a new passport or suspend current passport,
- registering a lien against personal property and real property owned by the payor, and
- obtaining an order for the payor's arrest.
For child support judgments, there are extra ways of enforcement not available for other judgments. Under Section 18 of the Family Maintenance Enforcement Act, the recipient can get a continuing garnishing order so that money is taken from the payor's income every payday.
While it is possible to undertake collection or enforcement proceedings on your own, this will cost money and time and possibly require you to hire a lawyer and bear that expense as well. Since any private collection efforts you might take may interfere with efforts being made on your behalf by FMEP, recipients enrolled with FMEP are required to obtain the permission of the program's director before they can take independent enforcement actions.
You can find more information about enforcing orders in the chapter Resolving Problems in Court within the section Enforcing Orders in Family Matters. You can also find more information at the website of the Department of Justice, which includes a helpful overview of support enforcement mechanisms in Canada.
Section 148(3) of the Family Law Act allows a party to an agreement, usually a separation agreement, to file the agreement in the Provincial Court or in the Supreme Court. An agreement that is filed in court can be enforced as if it were an order of the court. It is not necessary for a court proceeding to have been started before an agreement can be filed in court.
FMEP will enforce agreements for support, however they require that the agreement be filed in court first and sent to them with the court's stamp before they can enforce the agreement.
Orders made outside British Columbia
Section 20 of the Divorce Act says that an order made in a divorce action has legal effect throughout Canada. It also provides that such an order may be filed in the courts of any province and be enforced as if it were an order of the courts of that province. In other words, if your divorce order was made in Alberta and contains a term requiring child support to be paid, you can register that order in the Supreme Court of British Columbia and it will have the same effect and be enforceable here as if it were an order of the courts of British Columbia.
Orders from other jurisdictions whose courts are recognized by this province's courts and laws may be filed at a court registry in British Columbia, and then enforced by FMEP just as if they were orders made by the courts of British Columbia.
- Family Law Act
- Divorce Act
- Court Order Enforcement Act
- Family Maintenance Enforcement Act
- Supreme Court Family Rules
- Provincial Court Family Rules
- Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act
- Interjurisdictional Support Orders Regulation
- Child Support Guidelines
- The British Columbia Reciprocals Office
- Legal Services Society's Family Law website's information page "Court orders"
- See "Change an order or set aside an agreement made in BC"
- Legal Services Society's Family Law website's information page "Court orders"
- See "Change an order or set aside an agreement made in BC" and "When can you change a final order?"
- Family Maintenance Enforcement Program website
- Clicklaw HelpMap: Family Maintenance Enforcement Program details
- Department of Justice: About support enforcement
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Normally referred to as the "Supreme Court of British Columbia," this court hears most court proceedings in this province. The Supreme Court is a court of inherent jurisdiction and is subject to no limits on the sorts of claims it can hear or on the sorts of orders it can make. Decisions of the Provincial Court are appealed to the Supreme Court; decisions of the Supreme Court are appealed to the Court of Appeal. See "Court of Appeal," "jurisdiction," "Provincial Court," and "Supreme Court of Canada."
A court established and staffed by the provincial government, which includes Small Claims Court, Youth Court, and Family Court. The Provincial Court is the lowest level of court in British Columbia and is restricted in the sorts of matters it can deal with. It is, however, the most accessible of the two trial courts and no fees are charged to begin or defend a court proceeding. Small Claims Court, for example, cannot deal with claims larger than $25,000, and Family Court cannot deal with the division of family property or matters under the Divorce Act. See "judge" and "jurisdiction."
Money paid by one parent or guardian to another parent or guardian as a contribution toward the cost of a child's living and other expenses.
A duty, whether contractual, moral, or legal in origin, to do or not do something. See "duty."
A sum of money or an obligation owed by one person to another. A "debtor" is a person responsible for paying a debt; a "creditor" is the person to whom the debt is owed.
Child support or spousal support that is owing because of an order or agreement, but is unpaid.
A mandatory direction of the court, binding and enforceable upon the parties to a court proceeding. An "interim order" is a temporary order made following the hearing of an interim application. A "final order" is a permanent order, made following the trial of the court proceeding or the parties' settlement, following which the only recourse open to a dissatisfied party is to appeal. See "appeal," "consent order," "decision," and "declaration."
Doing something or failing to do something that impairs the administration of justice or respect for the court’s authority, such as bribing a witness, disobeying a court order, or misleading the court. Contempt of court can be a civil offence as well as a criminal offence.
In law, a person named as an applicant, claimant, respondent, or third party in a court proceeding; someone asserting a claim in a court proceeding or against whom a claim has been brought. See "action" and "litigant."
A judge's conclusions after hearing argument and considering the evidence presented at a trial or an application; a decision, the judge's reasons. A judge's written or oral decision will include the judge's conclusions about the relief or remedies claimed as well as their findings of fact and conclusions of law. A written decision is called the judge’s "reasons for judgment." See "common law," "conclusions of law," "findings of fact," and "final judgment."
A time period after which someone may not make a claim because the right to do so has expired. The time for making a claim is set by legislation, and limitation periods will differ depending on the type of claim or the relationship between people making and defending the claim.
A contract intended to resolve all or some of the legal issues arising from the breakdown of a relationship and intended to guide the parties in their dealings with one another thereafter. A typical separation agreement is signed following a settlement reached through negotiations, and deals with issues including guardianship, parenting arrangements, contact, support, the division of property, and the division of debt. See "family law agreements."
An agreement between two or more people, giving them obligations towards each other that can be enforced in court. A valid contract must be offered by one person and accepted by the other, and some form of payment or other thing of value must generally be exchanged between the parties to the contract.
A term under the Family Law Act that describes the visitation rights of a person, who is not a guardian, with a child. Contact may be provided by court order or by the agreement among the child's guardians who have parental responsibility for determining contact. See "guardian" and "parental responsibilities."
A person appointed by the federal or provincial government to manage and decide court proceedings in an impartial manner, independent of influence by the parties, the government, or agents of the government. The decisions of a judge are binding upon the parties to the proceeding, subject to appeal.
In law, a court proceeding; a lawsuit; an action; a cause of action; a claim. Also the historic decisions of the court. See "action," "case law, " "court proceeding," and "precedent."
A request to the court that it make a specific order, usually on an interim or temporary basis, also called a "chambers application" or a "motion." See also "interim application" and "relief."
Intentionally doing a thing; a law passed by a government, also called "legislation" or a "statute." See "regulations."
Money paid by one spouse to another spouse either as a contribution toward the spouse's living expenses or to compensate the spouse for the economic consequences of decisions made by the spouses during their relationship.
The geographic place where a person permanently lives. This is different from a person's "domicile" in that a person's residence is more fixed and less changeable in nature. A person's residence can also have an impact on a court's authority to hear and decide a legal action. See "domicile" and "jurisdiction."
A step in a court proceeding in which each party both advises the other of the documents in their possession which relate to the issues in the court proceeding and produces copies of any requested documents before trial. This process is regulated by the rules of court, which put each party under an ongoing obligation to continue to advise the other of new documents coming into their possession or control. The purpose of this step is to encourage the settlement of court proceedings and to prevent a party from springing new evidence on the other party at trial.
A central office, located in each judicial district, at which the court files for each court proceeding in that district are maintained, and at which legal documents can be filed, searched, and reviewed.
Chattels, goods, money; property other than real property. See "chattel" and "real property."
A parcel of land and the buildings on that land. See "chattel," "ownership," and "possession."
A person licensed to practice law in a particular jurisdiction. See "barrister and solicitor."
A legal proceeding in which one party sues another for a specific remedy or relief, also called an "action," a "lawsuit," or a "case." A court proceeding for divorce, for example, is a proceeding in which the claimant sues the respondent for the relief of a divorce order.
The legal termination of a valid marriage by an order of a judge; the ending of a marital relationship and the conjugal obligations of each spouse to the other. See "conjugal rights," "marriage," and "marriage, validity of."
A court proceeding in which one party sues another for a specific remedy or relief, also called a "lawsuit" or a "case." An action for divorce, for example, is a court proceeding in which the claimant sues the respondent for the relief of a divorce order.