It’s tough enough for the 44 per cent of Canadians who have already lost work because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be even tougher still for those who are also paying child support.
How to manage? Parents’ obligations and their children’s needs don’t stop, even in the middle of a worldwide crisis. Those who make support payments have to continue. At the same time, keep in mind that courts do understand the ebbs and flows of life and how economic conditions can change.
Our family justice system has procedures in place to adjust the amount of child support to be paid for those who encounter bumps along the road. Nothing is automatic, of course, and when conditions take a turn for the worse as they have for many people now, separated or divorced couples can always negotiate a new separation agreement to recognize these difficult times.
Remember though: stopping child support payments is simply not a viable legal option. Among the possible consequences:
- The courts can reach into bank accounts and garnish (seize) funds
- Government funding such as tax refunds can be garnished
- Driver’s licences and passports can be suspended
- A non-payer’s credit rating can be ruined.
How You Can Adjust the Amount of Support
If you’re in the situation where you simply can’t afford the child support you’re obligated to pay, there are steps you can take:
- Self-assess your situation and see if you qualify for help — The federal government is accepting applications for emergency financial assistance. Go through your own details and see if you meet all the eligibility requirements to receive the aid. Also, think about other assets available to you — such as inheritance, savings accounts, possessions that could be sold, help from family members.
- Think about your former spouse’s situation — Does the other parent still have a job or access to funds that will help to pay the rent or mortgage, and provide food, shelter and clothes for your child?
- Consider the expenses that have gone because of the pandemic — Because much of the nation has closed, you and your child’s other parent likely do not have to pay for day care, private school fees, costs of extra-curricular activities (sports teams and educational programs), and transportation to various events and gatherings.
Once you have all the information, the next best course of action is to have a rational conversation with your child’s other parent. If you are both able to reach a decision on your own, that’s best for all parties involved. If you are unable to have a rational conversation with your spouse, consult with a family law lawyer or consider meeting with a mediator. A mediator’s job is to help parties reach an agreement. Mediation with a trained, accredited mediator, can often resolve issues more quickly, at less cost and with less acrimony.
If you’re both able to reach an agreement, it’s definitely in your best interest to have the agreement put in writing, reviewed by a lawyer and signed by you and your child’s other parent.
What to Do if You Can’t Reach an Agreement
If a mutual agreement is not possible, your next course of action should be to leverage the skills and expertise of your family law lawyer to help you file a motion in court to change your current agreement.
Remember that losing your job is one of the qualifiers that may enable you to have the amount of monthly child support legally changed.
Regardless, remember that the purpose of child support is to make sure your child has access to proper food, clothing and shelter.
No one wins if you suddenly stop your child support payments.
Keep in mind that no matter how long the pandemic lasts, this is a temporary situation. If you and your former spouse or partner are able to reach an agreement on a reduced amount of child support, it’s fair to include language in the agreement that the payments will return to normal when your situation is righted.
Regardless of which approach you use, your lawyer can provide important and necessary help. You’ll want to make sure you reach the best situation that will help you navigate the COVID-19 crisis and ensure your children get the support they need.
Darlene Rites is a family law lawyer and mediator at the Toronto firm of Ferreira & Bettencourt LLP.