25 July 2012

Claims for Retroactive Child Support and Spousal Support

Speaking of the recently concluded National Family Law Program (see the post below), I was fortunate enough to be asked to present a paper at the conference reviewing the case law on retroactive child support and spousal support. Since my paper is too dull to hold any reasonable person's attention for more than twenty seconds, I'll just give you the Coles Notes version.

The two really important cases on this subject are D.B.S. v. S.R.G., a 2006 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada on retroactive child support, and Kerr v. Baranow, a 2011 decision of the court which addresses retroactive spousal support. A "retroactive" order is an order that has a start date before the date the order is made, like an order made in July for child support payments beginning in March.

The key points of the court's analysis in D.B.S. are these:
  • An obligation to pay child support exists independent of any order or agreement on child support.
  • The amount of child support is determined by the Child Support Guidelines. The Guidelines base the amount of support owing on the income of the payor
  • The payor's child support obligation is the amount payable based on the payor's income and the Guidelines, but changes as the payor's income fluctuates.
  • An order or agreement may correctly state the amount of child support payable when the order or agreement is made, but if the payor's income changes the order or agreement stop being correct.
  • When an order or agreement is no longer correct, a court can make an order requiring the payor to make up the difference between the amount of child support that was paid and the amount that should have been paid.
D.B.S. then says that four factors should be taken into account when a court is asked to make a retroactive order:
  1. the reasons for the recipient's delay in asking for an order updating the amount of child support;
  2. any misconduct on the part of the payor, such as hiding income, lying about income or pressuring the recipient not to ask for more support;
  3. any hardship suffered by the children as a result of the payor's short support payments; and,
  4. any hardship that the payor might suffer if forced to pay a retroactive child support order.
Courts should consider these factors and the facts of each case in a "holistic" manner.

When a court is prepared to make a retroactive child support order, the start date of the order should be the date the recipient let the payor know that child support needed to be updated, to a maximum of three years from the date of the recipient's application to court. However, if the payor has engaged in misconduct of some sort, then the start date can be as long ago as the date when the payor's income changed.

In Kerr, the court held that these same considerations also apply to claims for retroactive spousal support, with two modifications. First, the reasons for the recipient's delay are more important in claims for spousal support than in claims for child support. Second, the sort of misconduct that is relevant is misconduct relating to the support application itself.

After reviewing how Canada's courts of appeal have treated D.B.S. and Kerr, it seemed to me that orders and agreements for child support no longer offer blanket security against claims made in respect of the period covered by the order or agreement. Payors of spousal support are somewhat better off, subject to the propriety of their behaviour and the adequacy of their disclosure, but the period elapsing between separation and the first payment of support seems to be fair game. It also occurred to me that the issue of misconduct has become the dominant factor in deciding claims for retroactive support orders, despite the court's caution that it is only one of the four factors to take into account and that none of the factors are predominant.

At the end of the day, I concluded that the only reasonable court of action for people paying support, child support in particular, is to make voluntary disclosure of any changes in income and to update the amount of child support being paid whether the recipient asks for the change or not.