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We are approximately a month into the pandemic. As parents are attempting to settle into the new normal, they still face uncertainties regarding their current and future financial circumstances. Unfortunately many parents have lost their jobs, are facing reduced hours and resulting decrease or total loss of income. For parent’s who pay child support, this may result in a difficulty to continue to meet those support obligations. At this time, there is limited direction from the government or the Courts regarding support payments and how to address this issue. 

This can be a concerning issue for both the payor and recipient parent, as it may leave homes in destitution. A payor parent may face difficult financial decisions, including whether they cover their own necessities of life or pay child support. Regardless of the circumstances, the payor parent is required to follow any existing court orders or support agreement and pay support.  He or she cannot prefer other financial needs to a support obligation. In the event a payor parent does not provide support, the recipient parent and children may be at risk of being unable to afford the basic necessities.  

Payor parents who find themselves in a situation where their income is reduced should consider the government’s financial assistance programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and other available sources of funding. However, these programs may not provide enough financial assistance for a payor parent that has significant child and/or spousal support obligations and who needs to ensure that his or her own needs are met.  There are also certain restrictions on eligibility for the various financial assistance programs. For example, a payor parent who owns a business or a recipient parent who does not work and relies solely on support from the payor, are likely not eligible for the program.  Payors of support should explore other options that would allow them to continue to pay support, including taking out loans or deferring recurring monthly expenses (i.e. mortgage payments, minimum credit card payments, etc). If there are fixed obligations, such as Section 7 expenses, that are no longer being incurred both parents should consider and discuss whether these payments should continue.

Ordinarily if a payor parent has experienced a change in circumstances, including a loss of job or significant change in income, he or she may file an application with the Court to seek a variation in their support obligations. Currently, it is impossible to take any steps to vary a support order as the Courts are only hearing urgent and emergency matters that do not include support issues at this time. In light of these unprecedented times, it is crucial for both parents to work together for the benefit of the children and reach an agreement regarding reduced support obligations, on a temporary basis. This will hopefully ease the stress and financial hardship on both the payor parent and recipient parent, as they each will be in a position to adjust their own finances to ensure that the children’s basic needs are met.   

Parents can agree to vary the amount of support payable. The payor parent should not unilaterally reduce or cease support payments altogether. If the obligation is a Court Order, a failure to make those court ordered payments is considered a breach of a Court order and there could be consequences such as being held in contempt of Court which, at it most extreme, can result in jail time. If the support obligation is contained in an Agreement, a payor parent who fails to make payments may be in breach of a contract. 

If your support order or agreement is registered and enforced by the Maintenance Enforcement Program (MEP), the payor parent should contact MEP to advise them that they may not be in a position to pay.  This is especially important as MEP has the power to take various enforcement steps including suspending drivers’ licenses and passports and garnishing bank accounts and wages. Currently, MEP may allow some flexibility for payor’s who cannot meet their obligations for reasons beyond their control, and in circumstances when they intend to apply to vary a support Order. MEP has advised that they will currently work with payor parent’s to make alternate payment arrangements. This assistance is temporary. It is the payor parent’s responsibility to remain in contact with MEP each month. Notwithstanding this, MEP has made it clear that making no payment is not an option. 

In light of the above, a payor parent should let the recipient parent know of their change of circumstances as soon as possible and communicate that it may be difficult for them to continue to meet their support obligations. This will at least provide the recipient with notice to consider their own circumstances and determine whether they are willing to consider a reduction in support payments. Parents need to work together so that both households can get through this difficult time and ensure that the children are cared for and their needs are met. 

If you are experiencing child support related issues due to either an inability to pay your ongoing support payments or as a recipient of support who is no longer receiving support, please contact one of the family law lawyers at SVR Family Law. If you would like to know more about child support calculations, try our new Alberta Child Support Calculator tool. 

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