Child and spousal support obligations take effect either pursuant to a court order or a separation agreement (to be sure, many people make informal arrangements amongst themselves, though this is rarely advisable). Separation agreements typically contain review clauses which outline the process for changing a payor’s child or spousal support obligations, along with what kind of change in circumstances will trigger the review. Parties who have signed a separation agreement addressing support should begin there when seeking to vary a support obligation.
In Ontario, support orders are made either pursuant to the Divorce Act or the Family Law Act, depending on the court in which the proceedings took place. Sections 17(4) and 17(4.1) the Divorce Act and sections 37(2) and 37(2.1) of the Family Law Act outline the tests for varying child support and spousal support slightly differently. In practice, however, we are generally concerned with whether a “material change in circumstances” has taken place since the order was made. A “material change” is interpreted as a change, which if known at the time of the order, would have resulted in a different order being made.
The loss of employment (or even a reduction of income) beyond the payor’s control would generally justify a variation of child and/or spousal support in ordinary times. To date, there is no reason to believe that the loss of employment or income resulting from the pandemic would be any different.
That said, support payors should be careful in navigating a reduction of support. At all times, they should make good faith efforts to be transparent and continue paying what is affordable to them. For example, if a support payor underwent a 40% loss of income as a result of COVID-19, a good faith effort would be to negotiate a roughly 40% reduction to their current support obligations. Practically speaking, however, this may not necessarily be feasible. The support payor’s remaining monthly expenses (such as rent/mortgage, utilities, car insurance, debt payments, etc.) have not automatically dropped by 40% as well.
It will be important for the support payor to alleviate their losses as much as possible, for example, by applying for emergency relief from the government where appropriate, deferring debt payments and insurance premiums where possible and looking for other employment in the meantime.
When the courts resume regular function, many of these support payors will need to begin court proceedings to formally vary their support obligations or any arrears that accrue over the ensuing months. A payor’s good (or bad) faith efforts to continue paying support will likely be a factor considered by the court when addressing the issue.
“This article is intended to inform. Its content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon by readers as such. If you require legal assistance, please see a lawyer. Each case is unique and a lawyer with good training and sound judgment can provide you with advice tailored to your specific situation and needs.”