To Get or Vary Child Support, Do Your Kids Still have to be “Children”?
An Ontario Court of Appeal decision recently brought to the forefront an interesting little legal point, about the court’s authority to make or change child support orders even after children are too old or too independent.
Under Canadian family law, section 15.1 of the federal Divorce Act allows a court to make an order requiring a parent to pay child support for any “children of the marriage”. (And this term is defined by the Act to include: 1) a child under the age of majority (who has not otherwise withdrawn from his or her parent’s charge), and 2) a child who is over the age of majority but still dependent.)
Based on a prior ruling decided by the Supreme Court of Canada, a court only has the authority to make a child support order if, at the time of the initial application by the parent, the children fall under this “children of the marriage” definition. In other words, if the support-recipient parent waits until the children are over the age of majority or no longer dependent, then he or she is out of luck since the court lacks jurisdiction to retrospectively make a child support order at that point.
A recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision called Colucci v. Colucci, the court considered a related question: Can a parent apply to the court to vary a child support order, even after the children stop being “children of the marriage”?
The facts of the case involved a father of two children who had been ordered to pay child support but eventually fell into arrears of more than $175,000. By that time, both children ceased to be “children of the marriage.” Faced by the prospect of a significant decline in his income as an unskilled labourer, the father brought a motion to change the child support order retroactively, and have his arrears rescinded on the ground that there had been a change in circumstances.
The Appeal Court reviewed the governing law when an order could be varied, as found s. 17 of the Divorce Act. It was differently worded than the initial-support provision in section 15.1; the stated test for whether a court had the authority to vary an order was different from the test to make an order in the first place. The Appeal Court concluded that based on that wording, a court did indeed have jurisdiction to vary an existing order even after the children are no longer dependents. (And from an Ontario family law perspective, it should be noted that this aligns with the court’s jurisdiction under the provincial Family Law Act to vary child support orders retroactively in such circumstances).
Although the Colucci decision does not foretell that every parent’s application to vary child support will succeed (since that must be determined on a case-by-case basis), the law is now abundantly clear that a court had the authority to change orders even after the children no longer fall within the “children of the marriage” definition.
For the full text of the decision, see: