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Do You Have an Obligation to Support a Child Who Wants Nothing to Do With You?

 

Do You Have an Obligation to Support a Child Who Wants Nothing to Do With You?

As I have written in the past, the question of whether, and to what extent, a parent has to pay support in connection with a child is a complex one at the best of times, and can include consideration of support obligations in cases where a child over 18 is still attending school.    An off-shoot of this issue is the narrower question of whether in such scenarios a parent has a continuing obligation to support such a child with whom he or she is not on speaking terms, because the child has chosen to discontinue the parent-child relationship entirely.

A number of Ontario cases address this question.  In a relatively recent one called A.C. v. M.Z., the father claimed his support obligation should be reduced or eliminated because his four children had completely rejected him and he had not seen them for 10 years.   (Although the father claimed that he did not remember all the events leading up to that estrangement, the evidence showed it was punctuated by incidents of verbal and physical abuse:  for example, he did recall being criminally charged with uttering a death threat at his daughter’s first communion).  

To determine whether the father was still obliged to pay support in these circumstances, the court evaluated the prior court cases on this issue, which established the following points:

• As with spousal support, there is nothing in the law that makes the obligation to pay child support contingent on the paying parent and the child getting along or “being nice”.  To the contrary, the law has deliberately removed any fault or conduct component from the equation, and there is no express statutory basis (whether under the Ontario Family Law Act or the federal Divorce Act) to deprive an otherwise dependant adult child of support simply because of a breakdown in the child’s relationship with the paying parent. (See A.C. v. M.Z.)

• However, as part of the general determination of whether it would be “fit and just” to order support for a mature child, a court retains the discretion to consider several factors.  These include the quality of the parent-child relationship. (See Bradley v. Zaba)

• In this regard, the court will consider a child’s unilateral decision to terminate a relationship with one of the parents without any apparent reason, or for reasons that are vague.  (See Law v. Law and Whitton v. Whitton)

• Courts will also consider what steps the rejected parent has taken to promote meaningful involvement or a positive relationship with the estranged child.  Conversely, the court will also consider whether the parent has been significantly involved in the deterioration of the relationship, by behaving in such a way to make it impossible or very difficult for the child to continue it.   (See Smith v. Smith)

• The onus is on a parent complaining of estrangement to show he or she made meaningful efforts to maintain a positive relationship with the adult child. (See Casademont v. Casademont)

• The overriding principle remains the question of whether a child is a “child of the marriage”.  (See Jackson v. Jackson)

Note that the nature of estrangement is also important:  the question is whether it amounts to a “change,” meaning a recent rejection as opposed to a long-standing rift.  (See Athwal v. Athwal)  

Moreover, there must be a “unilateral termination”, and not merely an argument, falling out, drifting apart, or temporary breakdown in the parent-child relationship. (See Farden v. Farden)

Returning to the case of the father who had not seen his four children for 10 years, the court applied the governing factors and found that he still had an obligation to pay child support for them, nonetheless.

For the full text of the decisions, see:

A.C. v. M.Z., 2010 ONSC 6473 (CanLII)  http://canlii.ca/t/2dss8

Bradley v. Zaba, 1996 CanLII 4930 (SK CA) 

Law v. Law, [1986] O.J. No. 2513 (Gen. Div.)

Whitton v. Whitton, [1989] O.J. No. 1002 (Ont. C.A.)

Smith v. Smith, 79 R.F.L. (6th) 166 (Sask. Q.B)

Casademont v. Casademont, (2007) 44 R.F.L. (6th) 287 (S.C.J.)

Jackson v. Jackson, [1973] S.C.R. 205 (S.C.C.)

Athwal v. Athwal, 2007 BCSC 221 (CanLII), 2007 BCSC 221 (B.C. S.C.)

Farden v. Farden, 1993 CanLII 2570 (BC SC), (1993), 48 R.F.L. (3d) 60 (B.C. Master)

At Russell Alexander, Family Lawyers our focus is exclusively family law, offering pre-separation legal advice and assisting clients with family related issues including: custody and access, separation agreements, child and spousal support, division of family property, paternity disputes, and enforcement of court orders.  For more information, visit us at  www.RussellAlexander.com.