Introduction to Child Support
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by JP Boyd, QC, Boyd Arbitration Chambers in March 2021.|
Parents are legally responsible for financially supporting their children. This is true even if one parent doesn’t see or take care of the children. Learn about child support, how it’s calculated, and how to get it.
This information has been updated to reflect changes to the Divorce Act that took effect on March 1, 2021.
What you should know
What child support is for
Child support is money paid by one parent or stepparent (the payor) to another (the recipient). It’s paid after separation to help cover the costs of raising the children. Child support is the right of the child — whether or not there’s an agreement or an order between the parents saying that child support must be paid.
The parent with whom the child lives most of the time is entitled to receive child support from the other parent. If a child spends the same (or almost the same) amount of time with both parents, the parent with the higher income usually has to pay child support.
Who has to pay child support
Parents have a legal duty to provide child support. This includes biological parents, stepparents, parents who have had a child through assisted reproduction, and adoptive parents. It also includes parents who are married to each other and parents who aren’t.
Surrogates and donors
When a woman agrees to have a child for someone else using assisted reproduction, she is a surrogate mother. A person who helps someone have a child by donating eggs or sperm is a donor.
Surrogate mothers and donors may or may not have to pay child support. The people involved in having the child can make an agreement that says a surrogate mother or a donor is or is not a parent. Surrogate mothers and donors who are parents may have to pay child support.
In BC law, a stepparent is a spouse of a child’s parent who lives with the parent and the child. If a stepparent and a parent separate, the stepparent can be required to pay child support. This can happen under the Divorce Act if the stepparent and parent were married. It can also happen under the Family Law Act if:
- the stepparent contributed to the support of the child for at least one year, and
- a claim for child support is made against the stepparent within one year of their last support of the child.
A stepparent can be required to pay child support even when another biological parent is already doing so. A stepparent may pay less child support than what the law would normally require. There’s no formula for this calculation. Often the court treats the stepparent’s obligation as a top-up to the amount owed by a child’s birth parent.
How much child support is payable
How much child support a parent pays is determined by the Federal Child Support Guidelines. The Guidelines have tables that set out the amount of support based on:
- the payor’s income,
- the province or territory where the payor lives, and
- the number of children child support is being paid for.
There are some exceptions to the Guidelines tables, which we explain below.
This basic child support amount is a contribution to the child’s basic expenses and the cost of raising the child. This includes the child’s share of the rent or mortgage, phone bill, utility bills, cable bills, grocery costs, clothing, haircuts, basic school supplies, toiletries, and so forth.
You can calculate the basic child support amount under the Guidelines using the federal government’s Child Support Table Look-up.
What “special or extraordinary” expenses are
In some cases, all of a child’s parents may have to contribute to certain expenses on top of the basic amount of child support. Qualifying expenses are called special expenses or extraordinary expenses under the Guidelines. These can include:
- child care expenses, so the parent who looks after the child can work or go to school in order to get work
- medical or health-related expenses for the child, including the cost of medical insurance
- some educational expenses, including post-secondary education or private school fees
- some expenses for extracurricular activities like music, art lessons, or sports
These types of expenses don’t automatically qualify as special expenses or extraordinary expenses. To qualify, the expenses have to be reasonable in light of the parents’ financial circumstances. They also have to be necessary in terms of the child’s particular needs. This means that piano lessons, for example, might qualify as a special or extraordinary expense for one family but not for another.
How “special or extraordinary” expenses are calculated
Parents share special expenses and extraordinary expenses in proportion to their incomes. They share the net cost of an expense. That is, they share the cost that’s left over after deducting any contributions made by the child, by the government (such as the federal tax deduction for child care expenses), or from another source (such as health insurance, a subsidy, or a bursary).
As a result, if both parents have the same income, they’d each pay for half of the cost of the special or extraordinary expense. If parents have different incomes, they pay an amount proportional to their share of the total income of both parents.
For example, say one parent has an income of $20,000 and another parent has an income of $30,000. Together, their incomes total $50,000. Of this total amount, the first parent’s income is 40%, and the second parent’s income is 60%. The first parent would pay for 40% of the net cost of the special or extraordinary expense, and the second parent would pay for the remaining 60%.
Parenting arrangements can affect child support
How much time a child lives with each parent can affect who pays child support and how much.
Shared parenting time means that a child lives with each parent at least 40% of the time over the course of a year. In cases like this, a parent may pay less child support than what’s set out in the Guidelines tables.
In a shared parenting time arrangement, child support is often calculated by figuring out what each parent would pay if the child lived with the other parent most of the time. Then, the parents set off the two amounts and the higher income parent, with the higher child support obliation, will pay the difference as child support.
Say one parent would have to pay another parent $400 per month if the child lived mostly with the second parent, and the second parent would have to pay the first parent $300 per month if the child mostly lived with the first parent. Subtracting $300 from $400 leaves a set-off amount of $100. The first parent would pay child support to the second parent in the amount of $100 per month.
However, there’s no rule that says the set-off calculation must be used. In cases where the set-off isn’t helpful, child support can also be calculated by looking at:
- the higher costs of shared parenting to the payor, and
- the financial needs of each parent and the child.
When each parent has a child in their care
When each parent has one or more children living mostly in their care, this is called a split parenting time arrangement. In this case, each parent calculates the full amount of child support they’d pay to the other parent for the children in that parent’s care. The amount that changes hands is the difference between the higher and lower support amounts.
For example, say one parent would have to pay another parent $400 per month for the children in their care, while the second parent would have to pay the first parent $300 per month for the children in their care. Subtracting $300 from $400 leaves a set-off amount of $100. The first parent would pay child support to the second parent in the amount of $100 per month.
If the amount set by the Guidelines is too high or too low
In some cases, a court can order that more or less child support be paid than what the Guidelines say. For this to happen, a parent must show that paying the Guidelines’ amount would cause undue hardship to either the payor or the recipient. Undue hardship means that paying the usual child support amount would be very unfair and cause a big financial problem for either the payor or the recipient.
When someone makes a claim of undue hardship, the court compares the standard of living of the parents’ households. (This includes the income from a new spouse or live-in boyfriend or girlfriend.) If the parent claiming undue hardship has a household standard of living that’s lower than the other parent, the court may accept a claim of undue hardship.
Proving undue hardship is complicated, and it’s a good idea to speak with a lawyer.
Other exceptions to the amount set by the Guidelines
The court can order that more or less child support be paid than what the Guidelines say in other situations. These include when the child is the age of majority and older, when the payor earns more than $150,000 per year, and when the payor is a stepparent.
Dealing with these situations can be complicated, and it’s a good idea to speak with a lawyer.
How to get child support
If you agree on support
Child support can be agreed to in a separation agreement. Here, we explain separation agreements.
If you don’t agree on support
If parents can’t agree on child support, one of them can contact a mediator, start a court case, or go to arbitration. They can ask the court or the arbitrator for an order that child support be paid.
Which court to apply to
An application for a child support order can be made in either the Provincial Court (commonly called Family Court) or the Supreme Court. Each court has its own set of forms and rules. Usually, it’s simpler and less expensive to get a child support order in Family Court. (There are no court filing fees, for example.) For more on this option, see our information on Family Court.
However, Family Court cannot make divorce orders, divide property or debts, or make orders protecting family property. If you need to ask for orders like these, it may be better to start your case in the Supreme Court. There, everything can be dealt with at the same time.
There must be financial disclosure
To get an order for child support, there must be financial disclosure. The payor must provide proof of their income, which usually includes paystubs, recent income tax returns, and other financial documents. In some cases, the recipient must also make financial disclosure. This is the case, for example, where the parents are sharing the cost of the children’s “special or extraordinary” expenses or where they share the child’s time.
Family justice counsellors are mediators who are specially trained to help families with family law issues, including child support. They can help negotiate a separation agreement and provide information about obtaining or changing a court order. Their services are free (though eligibility criteria apply). See below under “Who can help” for contact information.
Getting "interim" child support
After a court case is started, a parent can apply to court for an interim order for child support. This is a temporary order meant to last until another interim order is made, or the case is settled or goes to trial.
The amount of interim support a court awards may be different than the amount it decides on after a trial. This is because the best information about the parents’ incomes and financial circumstances is usually available at the end of a trial. For more on interim orders, see our information on applying for an interim order in a family law case in Supreme Court.
How long is child support paid for?
Child support must be paid for as long as a person is a “child” as defined by the Divorce Act or the Family Law Act. In British Columbia, a child is under 19 (the provincial age of majority). But the definition also includes adult children (19 and older) if they’re financially dependent on a parent. For example, a student in post-secondary school or an adult child with serious health problems may continue to qualify as a child even though they are age 19 or older.
What can I do if the other parent won’t pay child support?
If a parent doesn’t pay the child support owing under an order or an agreement, the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program can help. This free government program can help you collect support payments. It can also help monitor a support order or an agreement to make sure payments continue to be made and are made on time.
What if I need to change child support?
Either parent can apply to have a child support order or agreement changed if circumstances change. This can happen where, for example, there’s an increase or decrease in a parent’s income, or a change in the child’s living arrangements.
To make sure the appropriate child support amount is being paid, parents should exchange updated financial information and review child support payments every year. If there’s been a change, the Child Support Guidelines can be used to determine the new amount of child support.
Note that if you want to change an order and the other spouse lives outside of BC, there is a specific procedure to follow under each of the BC Family Law Act and the federal Divorce Act.
Legal Aid BC’s Family Law in BC website has self-help guides that include step-by-step instructions and blank forms. You can use these guides to apply to change a child support order or a court-filed agreement in Supreme Court or Family Court.
What if I’m on income assistance?
If a parent is receiving income assistance, they can get help from the BC government with getting child support. The parent can assign their rights to child support to the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. The ministry will help get a child support order or agreement. This can be enrolled with the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program for enforcement.
Can a child support order cover the past?
Child support orders can start at an earlier date than the date when an agreement is reached or a court order is made. These are called retroactive (backdated) orders. In general, the court will make a retroactive order when:
- a payor has a legal obligation to pay child support and didn’t do so, or
- a payor’s income went up but child support payments did not.
Usually an order for retroactive support will date back no more than three years before the date of the application for retroactive child support.
Who can help
With child support
Family justice counsellors in Family Justice Centres throughout British Columbia can help parents by providing information about the Child Support Guidelines. They can explain how to obtain or change support orders in Provincial (Family) Court. They can also help negotiate parenting and support agreements. Their services are free.
- Call 604-660-2421 (Lower Mainland)
- Call 1-800-663-7867 (toll-free)
- Visit website
To provide more information about the Federal Child Support Guidelines, child support officers are available in Vancouver, Surrey, Kelowna and Nanaimo.
- Call 604-660-2084 (Vancouver)
- Call 1-888-227-7734 (toll-free)
- Visit Website
Legal Aid BC’s Family Law in BC website features information on child support and step-by-step guides on going to court in family matters.
The wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law, hosted by Courthouse Libraries BC, has in-depth information on child support.
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