Spousal Support Arrears
When a person who is obliged to pay spousal 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 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 arrears. It discusses the reduction and cancellation of arrears of spousal support and the collection of arrears.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Reduction or cancellation of arrears
- 3 Collecting arrears of support
- 4 Resources and links
If spousal 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 can be contempt of court as well. The court places a high value on the financial support of spouses and will usually 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 spousal 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 the fact that 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 will 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 spousal 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 for up to 10 years after the obligation to pay support has ended.
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 163(3) of the Family Law Act says:
A written agreement respecting spousal 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.
As a result, the Supreme Court and the Provincial Court can:
- require the payor to provide security for their compliance with the agreement,
- 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 agreement, jail the payor for up to 30 days.
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. Alternatively, they can apply to set aside and vary the agreement, prospectively or retroactively, under ss. 164 and 167 of the Family Law Act, or seek an order in terms different from the agreement under s. 15.2 of the Divorce Act.
The Family Maintenance Enforcement Program
Although recipients can enforce orders and agreements for spousal support on their own, most of the time recipients will give that job to the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program, a BC provincial government program under the provincial Family Maintenance Enforcement Act which has been contracted out to an American company, Maximus ― not that you'd know this from the government website.
FMEP is a free service for recipients that is largely funded by late fees and penalties charged to delinquent payors.
FMEP has no discretion to change the orders and agreements that are filed with it for enforcement. FMEP cannot increase or decrease the amount of a spousal support obligation and it cannot reduce or cancel arrears of spousal support. FMEP will not help you defend an application to vary the support order, set aside the agreement, or reduce or cancel arrears. You will have to do that on your own. But just taking over enforcement of the order or agreement itself can be a huge relief.
Reduction or cancellation of arrears
Payors may apply to court to have their arrears cancelled or reduced. Technically, there are two ways to do that and each has its own considerations.
The two approaches are these. The first is to say, in effect, “Yes, that is the proper amount of arrears. I owe that, but I can’t pay it. Please allow me some relief.” It is essentially a debtor’s relief approach and as you might expect, the law takes a fairly hard view of this approach.
This is the approach the former Family Relations Act took. In order to succeed, the payor had to show that failure to grant relief would be “grossly unfair” to the payor.
The second approach is to say, in effect, “Yes, this is the amount I owe under the original order or agreement, but my situation changed. If I had applied when the change happened, the amount would have been reduced. So, please let me apply now and recalculate the arrears accordingly.”
This is the retroactive variation approach (applying late, or after the fact). The court still requires the payor to explain why they deserve a second chance, but is a little easier to persuade the court to do this than to allow the payor to pay something less than the full amount.
Now, the Family Law Act allows both for a reduction or cancellation of arrears (s 174) and for a retroactive variation of support order (s 167). So, the cases that said there is only one approach under the former act no longer apply. Payors have a choice. This is important because it is a little easier to succeed on a retroactive variation than a pure cancellation or reduction of arrears. Just be sure you are clear with the court which route you are taking.
Retroactive reduction of support
Section 17 of the Divorce Act says this about varying orders for spousal support:
(1) A court of competent jurisdiction may make an order varying, rescinding or suspending, prospectively or retroactively,
(a) a support order or any provision thereof on application by either or both former spouses; or
(b) a custody order or any provision thereof on application by either or both former spouses or by any other person.
(3) The court may include in a variation order any provision that under this Act could have been included in the order in respect of which the variation order is sought.
(4.1) Before the court makes a variation order in respect of a spousal support order, the court shall satisfy itself that a change in the condition, means, needs or other circumstances of either former spouse has occurred since the making of the spousal support order or the last variation order made in respect of that order, and, in making the variation order, the court shall take that change into consideration.
(7) A variation order varying a spousal support order should
(a) recognize any economic advantages or disadvantages to the former spouses arising from the marriage or its breakdown;
(b) apportion between the former spouses any financial consequences arising from the care of any child of the marriage over and above any obligation for the support of any child of the marriage;
(c) relieve any economic hardship of the former spouses arising from the breakdown of the marriage; and
(d) in so far as practicable, promote the economic self-sufficiency of each former spouse within a reasonable period of time.
Section 167 of the Family Law Act says this:
(1) On application, a court may change, suspend or terminate an order respecting spousal support, and may do so prospectively or retroactively.
(2) Before making an order under subsection (1), the court must be satisfied that at least one of the following exists, and take it into consideration:
(a) a change in the condition, means, needs or other circumstances of either spouse has occurred since the order respecting spousal support was made;
(b) evidence of a substantial nature that was not available during the previous hearing has become available;
(c) evidence of a lack of financial disclosure by either spouse was discovered after the order was made.
(3) Despite subsection (2), if an order requires payment of spousal support for a definite period or until a specified event occurs, the court, on an application made after the expiration of that period or occurrence of that event, may not make an order under subsection (1) for the purpose of resuming spousal support unless satisfied that
(a) the order is necessary to relieve economic hardship that
(i) arises from a change described in subsection (2) (a), and
(ii) is related to the relationship between the spouses, and
(b) the changed circumstances, had they existed at the time the order was made, would likely have resulted
Retroactive variation applications are relatively new. In 2006, the Supreme Court of Canada established rules for applying for retroactive child support, or for a retroactive increase in child support. This is the case of D.B.S. v S.R.G. discussed in the chapter, Making Changes to Child Support. In the recent case of G.M.W. v D.P.W. 2014 BCCA 282, our Court of Appeal said these principles also apply to applications for a retroactive reduction of support. Both involve child support, but the rules will be similar for spousal support. For another example, see P.M B. v. M.L.B., 2010 NBCA 5, in particular paragraph five.
Among other things, the court must consider:
- the circumstances surrounding the delay in bringing the application; and
- any hardship caused by making or not making the order, to either party.
Delay might be explained if the other party promised not to rely on the full amount, or if the payor was temporary incapacitated, or was unable to get appropriate information or advice. But the delay will have to be explained somehow. The courts will not be sympathetic to someone who just chose to let it slide.
Hardship is a two-way street. The court has to consider the position of both the payor and the recipient. If the recipient relied on the order or agreement and went into debt in the expectation that the arrears would eventually be paid, that weighs against granting relief. If, on the other hand, it was clear to both parties that the order or agreement was unreasonable in light of current circumstances, that weighs in favour of granting relief. A retroactive reduction will be very unlikely if it would require the recipient to pay back money already received and spent.
There was some doubt whether a retroactive reduction was allowed under the Family Law Act, but several cases have held that it does, including N.M. v G.M., 2015 BCSC 1732.
Remember, though, that a retroactive variation application can only adjust the arrears to what they should have been, had the order or agreement been adjusted for current circumstances in a timely manner. If arrears would still have accrued, it does not allow any relief beyond that.
Cancellation or reduction of (proper) arrears
Section 17 of the Divorce Act says this:
17 (1) A court of competent jurisdiction may make an order varying, rescinding or suspending, prospectively or retroactively,
- (a) a support order or any provision thereof on application by either or both former spouses; or …
Section 174(1) of the Family Law 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.
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 of 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 spousal support you were required to pay?
- Why did you wait until arrears had accumulated before you tried to vary the spousal 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, 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) summarizing all of your assets and income, liabilities and expenses, if you intend to show the court that you cannot pay your arrears. Complete financial disclosure is absolutely essential.
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 (FMEP). You can find more information about FMEP earlier in this section. Someone entitled to receive support under an order or agreement can sign up with this program and the program will tend to the enforcement support 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 filed separation 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 outstanding arrears, 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 RCMP to seize a payor's passport,
- registering a lien against personal property and real property owned by the payor, and
- obtaining an order for the payor's arrest.
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 Family Law 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 163(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 an original copy of the agreement be filed in court 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 spousal 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.
The provincial Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act allows orders for spousal support made under provincial laws elsewhere in Canada, and in certain foreign states, to be filed in our courts and enforced as if they were British Columbia orders. The reciprocating states under the Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act are South Africa, Zimbabwe, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Gibraltar, Norway, the Slovak Republic, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and its protectorates, the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and Barbados and its dependencies.
Foreign orders that are filed in this province may be enforced by FMEP as if they were orders made by the courts of British Columbia. You can find more information in the chapter Resolving Family Law Problems in Court, and in particular in the section Enforcing Orders in Family Matters.
- Family Law Act
- Divorce Act
- Family Maintenance Enforcement Act
- Court Order Enforcement Act
- Interjurisdictional Support Orders Act
- Family Maintenance Enforcement Program Website
- Department of Justice: Provincial and Territorial Information on Interjurisdictional and International Support Order Enforcement
- Clicklaw: Spousal support help from BC Ministry of Justice
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by David Dundee and Gillian Oliver, May 15, 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."
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.
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."
Intentionally doing a thing; a law passed by a government, also called "legislation" or a "statute." See "regulations."
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.
In law, an order sought by a party to a court proceeding or application, usually as described in their pleadings. Where more than one order or type of order is sought, each order sought is called a "head of relief." See "action," "application" and "pleadings."
In law, having the capacity, ability or authorization to do a thing. A person who is competent to give evidence is sane and able to understand the issues and results of their evidence. A court that is competent has the authority to deal with the issues in a case and authority over the parties to that case.
With respect to courts, the authority of the court to hear an action and make orders; the limits of the authority of a particular judicial official; the geographic location of a court; the territorial limits of a court's authority. With respect to governments, the authority of a government to make legislation as determined by the constitution; the limits of authority of a particular government agents. See “constitution."
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, 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, to divide equally, usually referring to the division of family property between spouses. See also "reapportion."
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."
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."
Facts or proof of facts presented to a judge at a hearing or trial. Evidence can be given through the oral testimony of witnesses, in writing as business records and other documents, or in the form of physical objects. Evidence must be admissible according to the rules of court and the rules of evidence. See "circumstantial evidence," "hearsay," and "testimony."
In law, any proceeding before a judicial official to determine questions of law and questions of fact, including the hearing of an application and the hearing of a trial. See "decision" and "evidence."
A step in a court proceeding in which each party 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.
The highest level of court in Canada. This court hears appeals from the decisions of the Federal Court of Appeal and the provincial courts of appeal, including the Court of Appeal for British Columbia. There is no court to appeal to beyond this court. See "Court of Appeal" and "Supreme Court."
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.
The highest level of court in this province, having the jurisdiction to review decisions of the Supreme Court, all provincial lower courts and certain tribunals. See "appeal."
A legal document required by the rules of court in which a party to a court proceeding involving child support, spousal support, the division of property or the division of debt must describe their income, expenses, assets and liabilities under oath or affirmation. See "affirm," "oath," and "perjury."
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.