Enforcing Family Law Agreements
People who sign a family law agreement are signing a contract. A contract is an agreement between two or more people that creates an obligation to do or to not do something. Other kinds of contracts include the rental agreement a tenant has with a landlord, the lease agreement you might have with a car company, or the employment contract an employee has with an employer. Contracts can be enforced by the courts when someone doesn't do what the contract requires of them; in fact, that's the whole point of having a contract. You want a document that describes your obligations to each other and you want to have a way of making the other party do what they're supposed to do.
This section discusses how family law agreements can be enforced by the courts and by the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program, an agency of the provincial government that can help with the enforcement of agreements for the payment of child support and spousal support.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Agreements about the care of children
- 3 Agreements for child support and spousal support
- 4 Agreements about property and debt
- 5 Resources and links
When someone who has signed a family law agreement doesn't do the things the agreement requires, that person is in breach of the agreement. In family law, unlike the law about commercial contracts, a party to an agreement can breach just part of the agreement without being considered to be in breach of the whole agreement. As a result, when someone breaches just a part of a family law agreement, the other party isn't allowed to treat the entire agreement as having been rejected by the breaching party, no matter how important the breach was, and the agreement continues to be binding on both parties.
The Family Law Act says this about family law agreements at section 6:
(1) Subject to this Act, 2 or more persons may make an agreement
(a) to resolve a family law dispute, or
(i) a matter that may be the subject of a family law dispute in the future,
(ii) the means of resolving a family law dispute or a matter that may be the subject of a family law dispute in the future, including the type of family dispute resolution to be used, or
(iii) the implementation of an agreement or order.
(3) Subject to this Act, an agreement respecting a family law dispute is binding on the parties.
(4) Subsection (3) applies whether or not
(a) there is consideration,
(b) the agreement has been made with the involvement of a family dispute resolution professional, or
(c) the agreement is filed with a court.
When a term of an agreement is breached, the other party is entitled to take steps to make the breaching party comply with their obligations under the agreement. This is called enforcing the agreement. How a separation agreement is enforced depends largely on which particular term of the agreement has been breached. Some terms, like those dealing with child support, are fairly easy to enforce. Other terms, like those dealing with the allocation of parental responsibilities, can be much harder to deal with.
Enforcement under the Family Law Act
The Family Law Act allows certain family law agreements about certain subjects to be filed in court and enforced under the act:
- agreements on parental responsibilities and parenting time can be filed under s. 44(3),
- agreements for contact can be filed under s. 58(3),
- agreements for child support can be filed under s. 148(2), and
- agreements for spousal support can be filed under s. 163(3).
Once filed in court, these agreements can be enforced under the Family Law Act in the same way as orders are enforced under the act.
The act has different ways of enforcing orders, that change depending on the subject of the order (or agreement). Where the act provides a particular way of enforcing an order, the order can be enforced under that specific enforcement power and by the act's extraordinary enforcement power. Where the act does not provide a particular way of enforcing an order, the order can be enforced under the act's general enforcement power and by its extraordinary enforcement power.
General enforcement power
Under section 230 of the Family Law Act, the court can enforce an order (or agreement) by requiring a person:
- to post security, usually by paying a sum of money into court,
- to pay the expenses the other party incurred from the person's breach,
- to pay up to $5,000 to the other party or a child or spouse who was affected by the person's breach, or
- to pay up to $5,000 as a fine.
These provisions apply to agreements about parental responsibilities, child support, and spousal support.
Extraordinary enforcement power
Under section 231 of the act, when no other order will be sufficient to make someone comply with an order (or agreement), the court can enforce the order (or agreement) by imprisoning the breaching party for up to 30 days.
This provision applies to agreements about parental responsibilities, parenting time, contact, child support, and spousal support.
Enforcement under other legislation
The federal Divorce Act does not address the enforcement of family law agreements, however other laws do, such as the provincial Family Maintenance Enforcement Act and the provincial Personal Property Security Act.
Orders about child support and spousal support
Under sections 148 and 163 of the Family Law Act, an agreement about child support or spousal support that has been filed in court can also be enforced under the Family Maintenance Enforcement Act and the Court Order Enforcement Act.
Agreements about child support or spousal support made outside of British Columbia can be filed in court under the Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act, and then be enforced under the Family Maintenance Enforcement Act.
Orders about property
Under section 99 of the Family Law Act, a party to a family law agreement about property can file a Notice of Agreement in the Land Title Office that will be registered as a charge on the title of a property under the Land Title Act. This will stop the property from being transferred or mortgaged until the Notice of Agreement is cancelled.
Not all homes are houses attached to a piece of land. Under section 100 of the act, a party to a family law agreement about a manufactured home (a structure like a trailer home that is designed to be towed or carried from one place to another) can file a Financing Statement in the Personal Property Registry that will be registered against the manufactured home under the Personal Property Security Act. This will stop the manufactured home from being transferred until the Financing Statement is cancelled.
Agreements about the care of children
Under the federal Divorce Act, married spouses have custody of their children, and the schedule of their time with the children is called access. Married spouses could make an agreement talking about the care of their children in terms of custody and access, but should probably use the language used by the provincial Family Law Act because only that act provides specifically for the enforcement of agreements.
Under the Family Law Act, guardians, who may or may not be parents, have parental responsibilities for raising the children, and the schedule of their time with the children is parenting time. People who are not guardians may have contact with a child.
An agreement about parental responsibilities can be filed in court under section 44(3) of the Family Law Act and be enforced through the act's general and extraordinary enforcement powers.
Parenting time and contact
A written agreement about parenting time can be filed in court under section 44(3); a written agreement about contact with a child can be filed in court under section 58(3). These agreements can be enforced through the specific enforcement powers found in sections 61 and 63, as well as the act's extraordinary enforcement powers.
Denial of parenting time or contact
Under section 61, where someone has been wrongfully denied parenting time or contact in the previous 12 months, the court can:
(a) require the parties to participate in family dispute resolution;
(b) require one or more parties or, without the consent of the child's guardian, the child, to attend counselling, specified services or programs;
(c) specify a period of time during which the applicant may exercise compensatory parenting time or contact with the child;
(d) require the guardian to reimburse the applicant for expenses reasonably and necessarily incurred by the applicant as a result of the denial, including travel expenses, lost wages and child care expenses;
(e) require that the transfer of the child from one party to another be supervised by another person named in the order;
(f) if the court is satisfied that the guardian may not comply with an order made under this section, order that guardian to
(i) give security in any form the court directs, or
(ii) report to the court, or to a person named by the court, at the time and in the manner specified by the court;
(g) require the guardian to pay
(i) an amount not exceeding $5 000 to or for the benefit of the applicant or a child whose interests were affected by the denial, or
(ii) a fine not exceeding $5 000.
The court can enforce agreements for parenting time or contact using its extraordinary power to jail someone, as well as certain other extraordinary powers intended for problems like these. Under section 231(4), where a guardian withholds parenting time or contact, the court can require a police officer to take the child to the person entitled to parenting time or contact. Under section 231(5), where a person with contact refuses to return the child to their guardian, the court can require a police officer to take the child to their guardian.
Under section 62(2), the denial of parenting time or contact is not wrongful under the following circumstances:
(a) the guardian reasonably believed the child might suffer family violence if the parenting time or contact with the child were exercised;
(b) the guardian reasonably believed the applicant was impaired by drugs or alcohol at the time the parenting time or contact with the child was to be exercised;
(c) the child was suffering from an illness when the parenting time or contact with the child was to be exercised and the guardian has a written statement, by a medical practitioner, indicating that it was not appropriate that the parenting time or contact with the child be exercised;
(d) in the 12-month period before the denial, the applicant failed repeatedly and without reasonable notice or excuse to exercise parenting time or contact with the child;
(e) the applicant
(i) informed the guardian, before the parenting time or contact with the child was to be exercised, that it was not going to be exercised, and
(ii) did not subsequently give reasonable notice to the guardian that the applicant intended to exercise the parenting time or contact with the child after all;
(f) other circumstances the court considers to be sufficient justification for the denial.
Failure to exercise parenting time or contact
Under section 63, where someone "fails repeatedly" to exercise a right of parenting time or contact under an agreement, the court can:
- require the parties to attend a course of dispute resolution,
- require one or more parties or the child to attend counselling,
- require the transfer of the child between the parties to be supervised,
- require the reimbursement of expenses incurred as a result of the failure,
- require the posting of security, or
- require the breaching person to report to the court.
The court can enforce these agreements using its extraordinary power to jail a person.
Agreements for child support and spousal support
When a payor falls behind in their support payments as required by an agreement, or stops making them altogether, they are said to be in arrears of support. Support is often the easiest part of an agreement to enforce.
Once an agreement is filed in court, under section 148 of the Family Law Act for child support and section 163 for spousal support, the agreement can be enforced through the act's general and extraordinary enforcement powers. Filed agreements can also be enforced by the provincial Family Maintenance Enforcement Program. This is a free service that can be very effective in forcing a payor to meet their obligations and monitor ongoing payments.
Agreements about property and debt
Where an agreement provides for the division of property and debt and someone doesn't live up to their obligations, the agreement can be enforced by starting a court proceeding in the Supreme Court for breach of contract, asking the court to make an order for the specific performance of the agreement by the person in breach, plus an order for costs. An order for the specific performance of an agreement requires the breaching person to do whatever it is that the agreement required of them, like transferring real property, surrendering personal property, or paying a debt. An order for costs requires the breaching person to pay some money toward the cost of the court proceeding.
- Family Law Act
- Divorce Act
- Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act
- Family Maintenance Enforcement Act
- Court Order Enforcement Act
- Land Title Act
- Personal Property Security Act
- Canadian Bar Association BC Branch: Script on enforcing orders and agreements for support
- Department of Justice: About support enforcement
- Department of Justice: Provincial and Territorial Information on Interjurisdictional and International Support Order Enforcement
- Family Maintenance Enforcement Program website
- Clicklaw HelpMap: Family Maintenance Enforcement Program details
- Legal Services Society’s Family Law website's information page "Child & spousal support"
- See "Family Maintenance Enforcement Program"
- Personal Property Registry website
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Beatrice McCutcheon, June 9, 2019.|
|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."
An agreement between two or more persons about family law issues that have arisen or may arise, dealing with their respective rights and obligations to one another, which the parties expect will be binding on them and be enforceable in court. Typical family law agreements include marriage agreements, cohabitation agreements, and separation 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 duty, whether contractual, moral, or legal in origin, to do or not do something. See "duty."
An agreement which requires payment for the use of property, under which the owner of property, like a car or an apartment, gives up the right to occupy and use that property in exchange for a sum of money. A "lessor" is the person who retains ownership of the property and receives money for its use. A "lessee" is the person who purchases the right of possession and use of the property.
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."
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.
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."
The processes used to conclusively resolve legal disputes including negotiation, collaborative settlement processes, mediation, arbitration, and litigation.
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."
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."
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."
Intentionally doing a thing; a law passed by a government, also called "legislation" or a "statute." See "regulations."
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 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."
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."
An act; a statute; a written law made by a government. See "regulations."
Something which can be owned. See "chattels" and "real property."
In law, a document demonstrating ownership of a thing. See "ownership."
Real property; a parcel of real property and the buildings upon it. See also "chattel," "ownership," and "possession."
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 amount of time with the child. See "custody."
A person who is younger than the legal age of majority, 19 in British Columbia. See "age of majority."
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 party who brings an application to the court for a specific order or remedy. Usually refers to the party making an interim application, but in the Provincial Court it also means the person who starts a court proceeding. See also "court proceeding," "application respondent," and "interim application."
In law, defending a claim by denying the truth of a fact supporting the claim; a rejection of the truth of facts alleged.
Child support or spousal support that is owing because of an order or agreement, but is unpaid.
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 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.
Acting or not acting in a manner that is contrary to the terms of a contract. In family law, the breach of one party usually gives rise to a cause of action for the other party, allowing that party to sue for breach of contract, but the breach is unlikely to allow that party to treat the agreement as if it were cancelled or had been voided.
In contract law, the fulfillment of an obligation or duty arising from a contract.
A calculation of the allowable legal expenses of a party to a court proceeding, as determined by the Supreme Court Family Rules. The party who is most successful in a court proceeding is usually awarded their "costs" of the proceeding. See "account, "bill of costs," "certificate of costs," and "lawyer's fees."
A parcel of land and the buildings on that land. See "chattel," "ownership," and "possession."
Chattels, goods, money; property other than real property. See "chattel" and "real property."