Legislation in Family Matters

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The most important statutes in family law and divorce law are British Columbia's Family Law Act and the federal Divorce Act. There is also a very important federal regulation, the Child Support Guidelines, and an important academic paper, the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines. You may also run into other provincial and federal laws, like the Name Act, the Partition of Property Act or the Canada Pension Plan, which weren't written just for family law disputes but still relate to your situation. There are also some international treaties that might apply, most commonly the Hague Convention on child abduction and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

This section describes the basic legislation on family and divorce law, and briefly reviews some of the important secondary legislation and treaties touching on family law issues.

Two important statutes, one important regulation and one influential paper[edit]

The federal Divorce Act, the provincial Family Law Act and the federal Child Support Guidelines are central to family law in British Columbia. While some of the subjects covered by the Divorce Act and the Family Law Act overlap, there are significant distinctions between the two laws that you need to be aware of.

Only the Divorce Act deals with divorce. Only the Family Law Act deals with the guardianship of children and the division of property and debts. Both acts deal with the care of children, children's parenting schedules, child support, and spousal support. Both laws use the Child Support Guidelines to calculate child support and the payment of children's special expenses.

One of the most important distinctions between the two laws, as will be seen below, lies in how they define important terms like spouse, parent and child. Depending on the particular law you're dealing with, you may fall inside these definitions or outside of them, and that can have an important impact on your family law problem and the options available to you.

The Divorce Act[edit]

The Divorce Act, RSC 1985, c 3 (2nd Supp) is a federal law that you can find, along with other federal laws, at the website of the federal Department of Justice, or on CanLII, a free website for searching Canadian court decisions and legislation. Because of a constitutional rule called the doctrine of paramountcy, the Divorce Act is considered to be superior to the provincial Family Law Act. As a result, if you are entitled to ask for an order under the Divorce Act about child support or spousal support, you probably should.

The Divorce Act only applies to married spouses, people who are or were married to each other by a marriage commissioner or a religious official licensed to perform marriages. If you are not legally married, the Family Law Act is the only game in town. Although the court may allow someone who isn't a spouse to apply under the Divorce Act for an order relating to custody of or access to a child, that person must get the court's permission first, and the spouses must have already started a court proceeding between each other.

You must also be ordinarily resident in your province for at least one year before you can ask for an order under the Divorce Act. This means that you might have to delay filing for a divorce if you've moved to a new province within the last year.

The Divorce Act refers to children as children of the marriage. A child of the marriage is defined in s. 2(1) as:

A child of two spouses or former spouses who, at the material time,

(a) is under the age of majority and who has not withdrawn from their charge, or

(b) is the age of majority or over and under their charge but unable, by reason of illness, disability or other cause, to withdraw from their charge or to obtain the necessaries of life.

In other words, a child of the marriage is someone who is less than 19 years old, the age of majority in British Columbia, or who is 19 and older if the child cannot support him- or herself. Since only people qualifying as spouses are obliged to pay child support, the definition of child of the marriage is expanded in s. 2(2) to include stepparents:

For the purposes of the definition “child of the marriage” in subsection (1), a child of two spouses or former spouses includes

(a) any child for whom they both stand in the place of parents; and

(b) any child of whom one is the parent and for whom the other stands in the place of a parent

The Divorce Act covers these basic subjects:

  • divorce,
  • custody of and access to children,
  • child support, and
  • spousal support.

JP Boyd on Family Law provides extensive coverage of the Divorce Act, including a chapter on Divorce Act Basics.

The Family Law Act[edit]

The Family Law Act, SBC 2011, c 25 is a law created by the government of British Columbia that you can find, along with other provincial laws, at the website of the Queen's Printer or on CanLII, a free website that lets you search Canadian laws and court decisions. A handy, downloadable PDF of the law is also available online through a service called Quickscribe. Both married and unmarried couples may apply for orders under this act, as well as other people who might have an interest in a child, such as a family member of the child.

Section 1 of the Family Law Act defines a child as someone who is under 19 years of age. Section 146 gives a bigger definition for child support, and defines child as including:

a person who is 19 years of age or older and unable, because of illness, disability or another reason, to obtain the necessaries of life or withdraw from the charge of his or her parents or guardians

Under Part 3 of the act, a parent is presumed to be the biological father and the birth mother of a child. However, if assisted reproduction is used, parent can include:

  • up to two people who intend to have the child,
  • a donor of sperm and a donor of an egg, and
  • a surrogate mother.

When child support is an issue, parent can include a stepparent. Section 146 defines a stepparent as:

a person who is a spouse of the child's parent and lived with the child's parent and the child during the child's life

Under s. 3, spouse includes:

  • someone who is married to someone else,
  • someone who has lived with someone else in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years,
  • except for the parts of the act about dividing property and debt, someone who has lived with someone else in a marriage-like relationship for less than two years if they have had a child together, and
  • former spouses.

Under s. 39(1) of the act, a child's guardians are usually the child's parents, as long as they have lived together during the child's life. Under s. 39(3), guardians include:

  • people who are parents because of an assisted reproduction agreement, and
  • parents who never lived with child and other parent, as long as the parent "regularly cares" for the child.

Under the act, someone who is a parent or guardian can be required to pay child support. Someone who is a guardian has “parental responsibilities” for the child and has “parenting time” with the child. Someone who is not a guardian, has “contact” with the child.

A spouse can be entitled to get spousal support from another spouse. Only spouses who are married or who have lived in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years are entitled to share family property and are responsible for family debt.

The Family Law Act covers these subjects:

  • parentage of children and assisted reproduction,
  • guardianship of children,
  • parental responsibilities and parenting time,
  • contact with a child,
  • child support and spousal support,
  • dividing property and debt,
  • orders to protect people, and
  • orders to protect property.

JP Boyd on Family Law provides extensive coverage of the Family Law Act, including a chapter on Family Law Act Basics.

The Child Support Guidelines[edit]

The Child Support Guidelines, often referred to as just the Guidelines, is a federal regulation that standardizes child support orders throughout Canada, except in Quebec. The Guidelines talk about how income is calculated and how children's special expenses are shared between parents, and provide a series of tables, one for each province and territory, which set out how much child support should be paid based on the payor's income and the number of children support is being paid for.

The Child Support Guidelines apply to child support orders made under both the Divorce Act and the provincial Family Law Act. Because they are mandatory whenever child support is being paid, the Child Support Guidelines also apply to agreements about child support.

The Guidelines, and the exceptions to the Guidelines tables, are discussed in a lot more detail in the chapter Child Support.

The Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines[edit]

The Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines, often called the Advisory Guidelines, is not a law. It is an academic paper that describes a number of mathematical formulas that can be used to calculate how much spousal support should be paid and how long spousal support should be paid, once a person's entitlement to receive spousal support has been proven.

Although the Advisory Guidelines is not a law, the courts of British Columbia and many other provinces routinely rely on the Advisory Guidelines formulas when making decisions about spousal support. The Advisory Guidelines cannot be ignored if you have a problem involving the payment of spousal support.

The Advisory Guidelines formulas, and the way the courts have dealt with the Advisory Guidelines, are discussed in more detail in the chapter Spousal Support in the section The Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines.

Other legislation related to family law issues[edit]

This segment discusses some of the secondary legislation relating to marriage, children, child protection, the enforcement of orders and agreements relating to support payments, real property, wills and estates, and name changes.


The federal Marriage (Prohibited Degrees) Act sets out the degrees of consanguinity (relatedness by blood) a couple cannot have if they are to marry each other. The federal Civil Marriage Act defines marriage as the "union of two persons" rather than "the union of a man and a woman," allowing same sex couples to marry, and makes related changes to other federal legislation like the Divorce Act, allowing same sex couples to divorce, and the Income Tax Act.

The provincial Marriage Act deals with the formalities of marriage, and covers such things as who is entitled to marry people, marriage licences, and the age at which a couple can legally marry.

More information about marrying and marriage, including invalid marriages, is available in the Marriage & Married Spouses section in the Family Relationships chapter.


The provincial Age of Majority Act sets the age of majority at 19. The provincial Infants Act describes the legal capacity of children, such as their ability to enter into legally binding contracts or marriage settlements.

The provincial Adoption Act deals with such things as who can give a child up for adoption, who may adopt a child, and the general ins and outs of the adoption process. The process for adoption is described in more detail in the section on Adoption within the chapter Family Relationships.

The provincial Parental Responsibility Act says that parents whose children have been convicted of causing damage or loss of property may be held responsible for loss caused by their children's offences, up to a maximum of $10,000.

Child protection[edit]

On 1 October 2002, the Children's Commissioner, which investigated serious injuries or deaths suffered by children, and the Office of the Child, Youth and Family Advocate, which investigated issues involving children in the care of or involved with governmental and private agencies, were replaced by the Office for Children and Youth. On 18 May 2006, this was in turn replaced by the Representative for Children and Youth, operating under the Representative for Children and Youth Act. The goals of the representative, who has significant oversight powers, are to:

  • foster respect for the fundamental rights of all children and youth in British Columbia,
  • support and promote the rights of children and youth in the care of the state,
  • promote awareness and understanding of key principles in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child,
  • monitor the effectiveness and responsiveness of services and programs in British Columbia,
  • work collaboratively with public bodies, including the Chief Coroner and the Public Guardian and Trustee, to build an integrated, responsive process for the review and investigation of critical injuries and death, and
  • draw on lessons learned to support and promote prevention initiatives and best practices with respect to intervention.

The provincial Child, Family and Community Service Act gives the government, specifically the Ministry for Children and Family Development, the power to apprehend children believed to be suffering from child abuse or neglect, or who are at risk of child abuse or neglect. The act regulates the conditions under which children can be seized, the conditions in which they may be placed in the care of the government, and the authority and powers of child protection workers.

Enforcement of support obligations[edit]

The provincial Family Maintenance Enforcement Act establishes the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program, a government agency with the authority to enforce support orders, and sets the extent of that authority. The provincial Court Order Enforcement Act sets out the ways in which money awarded under a judgment can be collected, such as by liens against property, the garnishment of wages, and so forth.

The provincial Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act allows support orders made outside of British Columbia to be registered in this province for enforcement. It also allows someone affected by that order to start a process here that may result in the variation of that order in the court that originally made the order. The act does not apply to all support orders, only to the orders of the countries, provinces and states that have a reciprocal agreement with British Columbia.

Real property[edit]

The provincial Land (Spouse Protection) Act protects the rights of married spouses and unmarried spouses to their interest in the family home by allowing them to file an entry on the title of the property, but the protection ends once the spousal relationship ends.

The provincial Land Title Act deals with all aspects of the ownership and transfer of real property in British Columbia, including the conditions of holding valid title to a piece of land, placing and removing encumbrances (like liens and mortgages) on the title of a property, and the conditions under which a Certificate of Pending Litigation can be placed on the title. The Partition of Property Act gives someone who owns property jointly with someone else the right to force the sale of that property over the objections of the other owner.

Wills and estates[edit]

The provincial Wills, Estates and Succession Act deals with wills, changing wills, how close relatives can challenge a will, and what happens when someone dies without a will.

Names and change of name[edit]

The provincial Name Act is the law that deals with changes of name, both for a married spouse following divorce and for anyone who hankers to be called something different. (The process is fairly simple for a spouse following divorce.) The Vital Statistics Act talks about the registration of new births and about the naming of infants, and should be read if you're thinking of calling your child something different like Moon Unit or Blue Ivy.

There's more information about naming and changing names in the aptly-named Naming and Changes of Name section of the Further Topics and Overlapping Legal Issues in Family Law chapter.

International treaties[edit]

Canada is a signatory to many multilateral international agreements, from agreements about the treatment of prisoners in wartime to agreements about money laundering. In family law, the two most important treaties concern the wrongful removal of children and the rights of children.

The Hague Convention on the abduction of children[edit]

The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction says what signatory countries must do when someone has wrongfully taken a child into that country. The convention explains how someone from the departure country can make an application for an order in the destination country for the return of the child. It outlines the defences that can be made to an application, the different orders the court in the destination country can make, and the factors that court must consider in making those orders.

More information about the Hague Convention, including a list of signatory countries, can be found in the chapter Resolving Family Law Problems in Court within the section Enforcing Orders in Family Matters.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child[edit]

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is an agreement about the human rights and legal rights of children in signatory countries. Among other things, Article 12 of the convention says that the views of children must be heard in any legal proceeding that affects their interests:

1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.

You can find more information about how the views of children are heard in family law disputes in the chapter Children in Family Law Matters.

Domestic legislation[edit]

Canada and British Columbia have made a number of important agreements with other countries for the mutual enforcement of court orders.

The Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act talks about getting and changing orders for child support and spousal support where the parties are living in different provinces, territories or states. The Interjurisdictional Support Orders Regulation has a table showing which countries have signed up.

The Court Order Enforcement Act is about enforcing court orders for the payment of money or transfer of goods or property. The countries that have signed up can be found in the Notice of Reciprocating Jurisdictions.

You can find more information about the Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act in the chapter Child Support, in the section Making Changes to Child Support. You can find more information about enforcement of orders in the chapter Resolving Problems in Court, in the section Enforcing Orders in Family Matters.

This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by JP Boyd, August 8, 2017.

Creativecommonssmall.png JP Boyd on Family Law © John-Paul Boyd and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.

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."

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."

An act; a statute; a written law made by a government. See "regulations."

Something which can be owned. See "chattels" and "real property."

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.

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.

Under the Divorce Act, either of two people who are married to one another, whether of the same or opposite genders. Under the Family Law Act, married spouses, unmarried parties who have lived together in a marriage-like relationship for at least two years, and, for all purposes of the act other than the division of property or debt, unmarried parties who have lived together for less than two years but have had a child together. See "marriage" and "marriage-like relationship."

In family law, the natural or adoptive father or mother of a child; may also include stepparents, depending on the circumstances and the applicable legislation; may include the donors of eggs or sperm and surrogate mothers, depending on the circumstances and the terms of any assisted reproduction agreement. See "adoptive parent," "natural parent" and "stepparent."

A person who is younger than the legal age of majority, 19 in British Columbia. See "age of majority."

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."

In family law, an antiquated term used by the Divorce Act to describe the right to possess a child and make parenting decisions concerning the child's health, welfare and upbringing. See "access."

Under the Divorce Act, the schedule of a parent's time with their children under an order or agreement. Access usually refers to the schedule of the parent with the least time with the child. See "custody."

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.

A legal relationship between two persons, whether of the same or opposite genders, that is solemnized by a marriage commissioner or licenced religious official and gives rise to certain mutual rights, benefits and obligations. See also "conjugal rights," "consortium" and "marriage, validity of."

In law, something that is relevant, important. A material fact is a fact relevant to a claim or a defence to a claim. See "claim," "evidence," and "fact."

The age at which a child becomes a legal adult with the full capacity to act on their own, including the capacity to sue and be sued. In British Columbia, the age of majority is 19. The age of majority has nothing to do with being entitled to vote or buy alcohol, although federal and provincial laws sometimes link those privileges with the age at which one attains majority. See "disability" and "infant."

In law, a legal incapacity to do certain things, like enter into a contract or start a court proceeding. Legal disabilities include insanity and being under the age of majority. See "age of majority."

Intentionally doing a thing; a law passed by a government, also called "legislation" or a "statute." See "regulations."

A person gives something as a gift or as a bequest, freely and without expectation of payment in return.

The spouse of a person who has children from a previous relationship. A stepparent may qualify as a "parent" for the purposes of issues relating to child support and the care and control of a child under both the Divorce Act and the Family Law Act. See "parent" and "spouse."

In family law, the quality of an unmarried couple's relationship that demonstrates their commitment to each other, their perception of themselves as a couple and their willingness to sacrifice individual advantages for the advantage of themselves as a couple; a legal requirement for a couple to be considered spouses without marrying. See "cohabitation," "marriage" and "spouse."

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.

A term under the Family Law Act which describes the various rights, duties and responsibilities exercised by guardians in the care, upbringing and management of the children in their care, including determining the child's education, diet, religious instruction or lack thereof, medical care, linguistic and cultural instruction, and so forth. See "guardian."

A term under the Family Law Act which describes the time a guardian has with a child and during which is responsible for the day to day care of the child. See "guardian."

A person charged with the legal care of someone under a legal disability. A term under the Family Law Act referring to a person, including a parent, who is responsible for the care and upbringing of a child through the exercise of parental responsibilities. See "disability," "parental responsibilities" and "parenting time."

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 term under the Family Law Act referring to property acquired by either or both spouses during their relationship, as well as after separation if bought with family property. Both spouses are presumed to be equally entitled to share in family property. See "excluded property."

A term under the Family Law Act referring to debt owed by either or both spouses that accumulated during the spouses' relationship, as well as after separation if used to maintain family property. Both spouses are presumed to be equally liable for family debt.

A regulation to the federal Divorce Act, adopted by every province and territory except Quebec, that sets the amount of child support a parent or guardian must pay, usually based on the person's income and the number of children involved.

Short for the Child Support Guidelines, a regulation to the federal Divorce Act, adopted by each province and territory except Quebec, that sets the amount of child support a parent or guardian must pay based on the person's income and the number of children involved.

An academic paper released by the Department of Justice that describes a variety of mathematic formulas that can be applied to determine how much spousal support should be paid and how long spousal support should be paid for, once a spouse is found to be entitled to receive support. The Advisory Guidelines is not a law, but is nonetheless very useful.

Short for the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines, an academic paper released by the Department of Justice that describes a variety of mathematical formulas that can be applied to determine how much spousal support should be paid and how long spousal support should be paid for, once a spouse is found to be entitled to receive support. The Advisory Guidelines is not a law although it is pretty useful.

A parcel of land and the buildings on that land. See "chattel," "ownership" and "possession."

Being related to another person by blood. For a marriage to be valid, the parties must not be within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity or adoption. See "marriage," "Marriage (Prohibited Degrees) Act" and "marriage, validity of."

In law, a requirement or obligation to honour and abide by something, such as a contract or order of the court. A judge's order is "binding" in the sense that it must be obeyed or a certain punishment will be imposed. Also refers to the principle that a higher court's decision on a point of law must be adopted by a lower court. See "contempt of court" and "precedent."

In family law, the act or process of taking another person's child as one's own. The child becomes the adopting parent's legal child as if the child were the adopting parent's natural child, while the natural parent loses all rights and obligations with respect to the child. See "natural parent."

In law, in British Columbia a person under the age of 19.

In law, to take or to seize. In family law, this term usually refers to the taking of a child out of the care of their parents by the police or child welfare authorities.

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."

In family law, the dwelling occupied by a family as their primary residence. See "family property" and "real property."

In law, a document demonstrating ownership of a thing. See "ownership."

A legal right to have and use a thing that is enforceable in court. See "possession."

In property law, the act of an owner of a thing giving ownership of that thing to another person, in exchange for money or other property in the case of a sale or in exchange for other rights in the case of a family law agreement. See "family law agreements," "ownership" and "sale."

Real property; a parcel of real property and the buildings upon it. See also "chattel," "ownership" and "possession."

A document filed in the office of the Land Title and Survey Authority against the title of real property, stating that the property is the subject of a court proceeding and that ownership of the property may change as a result; formerly called a lis pendens. In family law, a CPL is used to protect the interest of a party in a piece of property by notifying potential purchasers or mortgagees about the court proceeding. See "clear title," "encumbrance," and "real property."

An agreement to transfer the ownership of property from one person to another in exchange for the reciprocal transfer of something else, usually money. See "agreement."

A person who is validly married to another person as a result of a ceremony presided over by someone with the authority to conduct marriages. See "marriage" and "unmarried spouse."

The taking of a person by force or fraud. In family law, also the taking of a child contrary to a court order or without the permission of a guardian. In certain circumstances, the abduction of a child by a parent may be a criminal offence.

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."

In law, the whole of the conduct of a court proceeding, from beginning to end, and the steps in between; may also be used to refer to a specific hearing or trial. See "action."

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