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How COVID-19 affects child support payments: Does a parent still have to pay support?

Wednesday, March 25, 2020 @ 3:01 PM | By Alex Boland


Alex Boland %>
Alex Boland
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned everyone’s life upside down. Some people are losing their jobs. Others are getting reduced hours. And businesses are having to shut down, by the decree of health officers, putting many businesses at risk of permanently closing.

In the week of March 16 alone, roughly 500,000 Canadians signed up to received employment insurance.

But one thing hasn’t changed: child support payments must still be made. While the government is shutting down non-essential public life and announcing a deferral of taxes (along with a raft of credits and deductions), it has so far said nothing about child support.

Many of those suddenly earning less, or no, income, have obligations to pay child or spousal support. In ordinary circumstances, the court expects payors who have lost a job or otherwise suffered a significant loss of income to go to court to seek a variation (or change) in the amount of child support he or she is paying. This can be onerous at the best of times, as the newly unemployed payor often cannot afford to hire a lawyer to seek the change.

But that too is impossible now. As of March 18, the B.C. provincial court, Supreme Court and Court of Appeal have all shut their doors to anything but the most urgent of cases, cases where life or liberty is at issue. Child support is not that kind of case. As a result, there is no way of changing child support orders.

And that leaves payors in a potentially impossible position because the law is clear: a payor cannot prefer his or her other financial needs to a child support order. This means that if a person’s choice is to pay rent, buy groceries, pay for other essentials or pay child support, they must pay child support first.

That policy makes sense in a world where there is an ability to seek a change in child support. But it does not make sense when there is no way to change the order in court. For example:

  1. What if a payor is facing homelessness or cannot feed himself or herself if child support is paid? From a public health perspective, it does not make sense to force a payor out on the street in order to ensure child support is being paid.
  2. What if the payor has to choose between staying home with COVID-19 symptoms or going to work to generate money for child support? As child support is a court-ordered obligation, he or she may be legally required to attend work unless a law is passed prohibiting it.
  3. What if the payor has a shared parenting order? It will make no sense to leave the paying household in destitution.
  4. What if the payor has a fixed obligation to pay for daycare, hockey and the like, but those have all been cancelled? A payor should not have to render himself or herself destitute to pay for expenses that are not actually being incurred.
  5. Will a payor’s receipt of COVID-19 benefits be attachable by government child support enforcement agencies? If so, where will that leave payors who have no income and no ability to receive benefits?

Parents counting on child support are also in a difficult position. They too may have suffered job loss and are struggling to survive on a limited income. The loss of an expected support payment will add to their woes.

So what should a parent do if he or she has suffered a COVID-19 job loss and has an ongoing child support obligation? We’ll cover that in part two.

This is part one of a two-part series.

Alex Boland is a family lawyer with Connect Family Law in Kelowna, B.C. He is also a former law clerk with the B.C. Supreme Court. You can reach him at alex@connectfamilylaw.com.

Photo credit / lemono ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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