27 April 2009

Rights of Access Trump Right to Breastfeed

The Globe & Mail has today reported on an interesting case out of the Ontario Supreme Court which addresses a difficult problem: what should the court do when a mother's breastfeeding regimen interferes with the other parent's time with the child?

This issue crops up with surprising frequency. In essence, infants are moored to mothers who breastfeed, and the younger the infant is the more frequent are the feedings, and the closer the infant must remain to mum. This can make access very difficult for the other parent, who not only must see his or her time with the child broken up into two- and three-hour blocks separated by one or two days, the access often has to occur with the other parent standing by. Despite this, no one in their right mind would deny a mother the right to breastfeed an infant, which tends to leave the other parent hanging.

This, at least, is the standard form of the breastfeeding dilemma, which usually resolves itself by the time the child is weaned. On rare occasions, however, a child won't be weaned by the 6 to 24 month mark (www.medicinenet.com), sometimes as a result of the mother's belief in the health benefits of long-term breastfeeding. In cases like this, the other parent's access to the child can become seriously cramped.

In Johne v. Cavannah, however, the judge found that the mother's preference for breastfeeding their 29 month old child had "a secondary impact upon [the father] in that it is used as an excuse to restrict his access." Making things worse, the mother refused to indicate when the child was going to be weaned, leaving the father in limbo.

As a result of the mother's approach, and certain provisions of Ontario's Family Law Act which equally entitles parents to custody, the judge held that the parents should move to a shared custody arrangement and that if the mother wished to continue to breastfeed, she would have to provide the father with bottles of pumped milk.

Update: 28 April 2009

A reader's comment has made me think a bit more about the implications of the Johne v. Cavannah case which deserve some additional discussion.

Fathers (this is a gender-based issue) are often quite vexed by mothers' decision to breastfeed when that decision interferes with their ability to spend time with their children. As I've already said, however, the personal inconvenience of fathers must take a backseat to mothers' reasonable decisions to breastfeed, which comes close to being a fundamental human right if it isn't one already.

Trouble comes calling when a mother continues to breastfeed a child well beyond regional weaning norms, and the father begin to wonder whether or not the mother isn't dragging things out just to prevent him from having the child over night, as opposed to pursuing a legitimate health care objective. This is the issue the court in Johne was called upon to address, but what makes Johne stand out is that the court actually concluded that the mother was intentionally delaying things to frustrate the father's time with the child.

While fathers should certainly look at Johne with hope and take succour in the knowledge that this obstruction to access can be overcome, they should not assume that mothers' right to breastfeed will be set aside for children within the usual nursing age or that it will be easy to get such an order, regardless of the child's age, without proof of the mothers' bad faith.

25 April 2009

BC Supreme Court Issues Important Judgment

Varga v. Varga, 2009 BCSC 416 concerns, among other things, the determination of a husband's obligation to pay child support for two children of his wife's previous relationship and child support for a child of their own relationship when custody of that child was shared.

This case involves two tricky questions about child support: how child support should be calculated when custody is shared; and, how a step-parent's child support should be calculated when someone else also has a responsibility to pay child support. Normally, child support is calculated simply by referring to the Child Support Guidelines tables and looking up the amount payable at the payor's level of income. The issues in Varga involve two exceptions to this general rule which allow the court to pick an amount of child support different than what the Guidelines tables require...

1) Under s. 5 of the Guidelines, the court can order a step-parent to pay a different amount of support if there is someone else, like another biological parent, who also has a responsibility to pay for the kids. As long as the other parent is actually paying child support, the court will usually treat the step-parent's obligation as a kind of "top up" to the biological parent's obligation, and the step-parent is rarely required to pay the full table amount of child support.

2) Under s. 9 of the Guidelines, the court can order a parent to pay a different amount of support if the parents share the children's time equally or near-equally. Although there are different ways of calculating how much child support should be paid, in general the court will make the payor pay the full table amount minus the full table amount the recipient would pay; this is called the "set off" approach.

In Varga, the court decided that the set off approach for the one child of the parties' relationship wouldn't do because it would result in too great a difference in the standard of living in the child's two homes, and too great a decline from the standard of living the child enjoyed when the parties' were still together. The court ordered the husband to child support of $650 per month, a bit less than the husband's child support table obligation of $755 and a lot more than the set off amount of $376.

With respect to the other two children, the court described the task required by s. 5 of the Guidelines: the court must consider the legal duties of the biological parent and quantify the amount of support the parent should pay, and the amount of the biological parent's child support obligation should presumptively be the full amount owing under the child support tables. The problem, however, was that the child had left the wife to live full time with the father about a year and a half after the husband and wife separated. The court decided that the husband would have no child support obligation from the date the child began to live with the father, however, he would hate to pay arrears of child support accumulating between the date of separation and the date the child went to live with the father.

10 April 2009

New Random Answers to Random Search Terms

I am able to review the search terms that lead people to my website. Every now and then, a search term is particularly unusual or suggests an answer that doesn't, and perhaps shouldn't, appear in the website. In this irregular feature, I will randomly reply to these search terms. New Random Answers will reappear at unpredictable intervals.

(Remember, the law that's being applied here is the law of British Columbia, Canada, and the laws of one jurisdiction are often very different from the laws of the next.)

>> paying for university after separation

>> child support college special expenses

>> do I still pay child support if the child is at university in another town

These questions all deal with one of the more difficult issues in family law, the payment of child support and special expenses for adult children who are studying at university or college.

The law behind this issue is simple. The Divorce Act and the Family Relations Act say that child support is payable for all kids under the age of majority, and for kids older than the age of majority of they are "unable to withdraw from the charge" of their parents. "Unable to withdraw" usually means that the child is unable to support him- or herself because of illness or disability, or because the child is engaged in post-secondary studies.

On top of the base payment of child support, parents are often also required to pay towards the cost of the children's "special and/or extraordinary expenses." Where an expense qualifies as a special expense under s. 7 of the Child Support Guidelines, both parents must contribute to paying the expense, and they contribute in proportion to their incomes. University and college costs almost always qualify as a special expense.

Here's where it can get a bit complicated.

Child Support

Normally, the table amount of child support is what gets paid for the support of an adult child.

Despite this, the court has the discretion to order that a different amount of child support should be paid, under s. 3(2)(b) of the Child Support Guidelines, if there is some objective reason why a different amount should be paid. In Hickman v. Hickman (2003 BCSC 116), the court talked about this issue at length and said that good objective reasons might include income from things like RESPs, scholarships, student loans, trust funds or inheritances, or disability payments. Whether the court will allow an exception to the tables will always depend on the circumstances of the case.

The person who receives the child support payments is usually the same person who has received them all along, the other parent. This can sometimes seem unfair, especially when the child is going to school in another city and lives in that city.

It is possible for a parent to pay child support directly to an adult child. This usally happens where the parents agree such an arrangement is appropriate; the court rarely makes orders to this effect. In general, the court will require that child support be paid to a parent as long as that parent maintains a room in his or her home for the child and the child stays there from time to time during school holidays.

Special Expenses

There are two conflicting lines of cases on the circumstances in which parents must pay the costs of post-secondary education and which costs the parents must cover.

The strict line of cases say this: post-secondary expenses should only be paid if the child is enrolled in a full-time course of study, and even then the course of study must be targetted to employment (unlike philosophy, for example my undergraduate focus).

The less uptight line of cases make post-secondary expenses payable whenever the child is enrolled in post-secondary studies, regardless of what the child is studying. Under these cases, children can drop out and return to school, or take a part-time course load or switch majors every year, and still have their expenses covered.

The costs that qualify as special expenses under the strict line of cases are limited to tuition fees, student fees and textbook costs. Other expenses may qualify under the less uptight line of cases, including for things such as residence, meal plans and the like.

The amount of the special expenses which the parents must contribute to is the net cost of these expenses, after all contributions from other sources have been applied to reduce the over all cost, such as student loans, scholarships, bursaries, fellowships, awards, grants and the like. Under the strict line of cases, children have been required to contribute earnings from their summer employment to these costs, obtain student loans, and provide proof that all available scholarships and grants have been applied for.

Additional information about child support and children's expenses, including a child support calculator and a special expenses calculator, can be found at www.bcfamilylawresource.com.