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Is $6,000 for Kid’s Braces Reasonable for a Middle-Class Family?

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Is $6,000 for Kid’s Braces Reasonable for a Middle-Class Family?

In Ontario, the concept of child support involves the payment by parents of a child’s basic, necessary day-to-day expenses. However, the law also provides for what are known as “special” or “extraordinary expenses”: these encompass child-related costs and expenses that are not strictly “necessary” (in the sense that food, shelter, and education may be), but rather relate to more out-of-the-ordinary items. They can include items such as music lessons, sports activities, extracurricular school trips or other educational opportunities, and similar expenses that only infrequently or on a one-time basis, but which are nonetheless considered as beneficial to the particular child and part of his or her reasonable expenses when viewed against the family’s overall means and lifestyle. The question of whether any particular expense of this nature is reasonable will vary from case to case, and from family to family.

Against this background, and given the broad and varying nature of what can constitute an “extraordinary expense”, it is unsurprising that separated and divorced parents often disagree about whether such expenses are justified, and often have to go to court to settle their disputes.

This was precisely the situation in a recent case called Scarrow v. Cowan. The couple, who had been married less than 10 years when they divorced, had one child together who lived with the mother ever since. Although the father had been paying court-ordered support all along, he and the child had had little communication since 2010.

In September of 2012, the mother agreed to have the 17-year old child receive orthodontic treatment, at a cost of about $6,000. When the mother lost her $25,000-a-year job in January of 2013, and asked the father to reimburse her for one-half of the costs. The father, who was earning about $50,000 per year, claimed the orthodontic treatment was unreasonable in light of the couple’s middle-class lifestyle, their other child-related obligations, and their respective financial means.

The court considered the situation. First of all, the Child Support Guidelines clearly designated orthodontic treatment could be an “extraordinary expense” for which the parents are responsible in the right circumstances. Next, despite the father’s assertion that the mother’s decision to arrange for orthodontic work was unwise in all the circumstances, the court found it was a reasonable one at the time the decision was made, since the mother could not have foreseen that she would lose her job. Finally, the court was mindful that if the child did not receive orthodontic care now, it might result in serious future health consequences for her as an adult.

The court ordered the father to contribute toward the costs of the orthodontic work at a rate of $125 per month, until his half was paid.

For the full text of the decision, see:

Scarrow v. Cowan, 2014 ONSC 955 (CanLII)

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