Research on Compliance with Child Support Orders and Agreements in Prince Edward Island



The following are the findings based on an analysis of 458 files at the P.E.I. Maintenance Enforcement Program.[12] The files are exclusively child support cases. No spousal support or combined support cases were included in the sample. The case files provide some basic information about the nature of the cases, some demographic information about the paying parents and recipients, and information about payment patterns and responses of the MEP to those patterns. Later in the report, in our analysis of interviews with paying parents and recipients, we revisit some of the case file data on payment patterns to explore the range of factors that may be influencing payment and non-payment of child support.

4.1 Who Are the Parents?

Data from our sample of paying parents and recipients indicates the following characteristics.

  • 98 percent of paying parents in the sample are men. There are nine women paying parents. There are no same-sex couples in the sample.
  • 81 percent of paying parents and 82 percent of recipients lived in P.E.I. at the time of the research (or at the time the file was designated as inactive[13]).
  • In 66 percent of cases, both paying parent and recipient lived in P.E.I. while the case was active.
  • The median age of paying parents in the sample is 38, and the median age of recipients is 35.

The MEP files did not have complete information on the employment status of paying parents. When the information was in the file and considered reliable, it was because either the paying parent had had a long-standing job and had continued to make payments without interruption, child support payments were being garnished from an employer (or from employment insurance payments), or an enforcement action was being taken and there was written information in the file about the paying parent’s employment or EI status. Information was considered reliable in 56 percent of cases. In those cases, 76 percent of paying parents were employed at the time of the research (or at the time the file was made inactive), and 21 percent were receiving EI benefits. A small number were receiving social assistance or worker’s compensation benefits.[14]

In the case of recipients, we could not rely on the files for current information on employment status, but we can report in many cases on whether recipients had been employed at any time during their involvement with the MEP, or had been receiving social assistance during that time. About 32 percent of recipients had been employed for pay outside the home at some point during their involvement with the MEP, and 38 percent had reportedly been on social assistance during that time.

4.2 Child Support Orders and Agreements

The MEP enforces child support orders and agreements from several sources. In some cases, the orders are part of the results of a divorce proceeding. The order in those cases could have been agreed to by the two parents and formalized by the court, or it could have been imposed by the court. In some other cases, the MEP is enforcing a court order imposed under provincial legislation, as part of a broader order relating to what have traditionally been referred to as custody, access and child support, after separation but prior to any divorce proceedings. In still other cases, it is enforcing an agreement between separating parents, whose lawyers (or mediators or other intermediaries) have recommended that the agreement be registered with the MEP to facilitate payments and reduce the risk of disputes over child support. For this research, the source of the order or agreement is of interest because it may be a factor influencing compliance or non-compliance.

In our sample, 28 percent of cases resulted from divorce orders, 38 percent related to orders under provincial legislation, and 34 percent were based on separation agreements, most but not all of which had been registered with the courts. Some cases may have started as agreements and ultimately became provincial orders or divorce orders. For our purposes, cases are classified according to their current source at the time of the research.

Paying parents and recipients have the option to seek variations to support orders through the court if they consider the existing order to be inappropriate because of changed circumstances since the time that the original order was given. In the case of a private agreement not registered with the court, the party seeking a change that the other parent did not agree with would have to seek an order from the court. This would not be considered a variation. There were variations in 16 percent of the cases in our sample, with a large majority of those resulting in a decreased order. Reasons for the variations were generally not available, but in the cases when the reason was apparent, it was most often because one or more of the children were no longer eligible for support because they were no longer living with the custodial parent, or were not in school and were no longer young enough to be eligible. In some cases, the financial situation of the paying parent had changed, and either the paying parent or the recipient had sought a variation. In three cases, one of the parents sought a variation specifically because of the new Federal Child Support Guidelines.[15]

The amounts of support orders in our sample vary considerably. The mean order/agreement in our sample was $250 per month. The smallest amount to be paid was $20 per month, almost all orders and agreements were at least $50, and the great majority were at least $100. The largest monthly payment was $1,600. The largest proportion of cases (28 percent) fall into the $101 to $200 range, while 24 percent are in the $201 to $300 range. Table 4.1 provides a breakdown of the size of the orders/agreements.

Table 4.1
Size of Most Recent Child Support Orders/Agreements
Size of order/agreement Number of cases Percentage of cases
Up to $100 70 15
$101-$200 127 28
$201-$300 110 24
$301-$400 59 13
$401-$500 40 9
$501-$1,000 47 10
More than $1,000 5 1
Total 458 100

Note: Due to rounding, not all percent columns will add to 100.

4.3 Payment Methods

There are a variety of ways that child support payments can be made through the MEP, the most common being by cash or cheque directly to the MEP, which then issues a cheque for the same amount to the recipient. Such payments may be voluntary, or as a result of enforcement action. Many payments are made through an attachment of salary or wage. The employer issues a cheque for the required amount to the MEP, and deducts that amount from the paying parent’s pay cheque. These are often a result of enforcement action, but some paying parents voluntarily make this kind of arrangement to facilitate payment.

In some cases, payments are made through MEP in another province or territory (or even some states in the United States, and some other countries). Some payments are obtained through the interception of money being paid to the paying parent by the federal government. That money can be employment insurance payments, income tax refunds, GST rebates, or pensions.

In a small number of cases, paying parents pay support directly to the recipient even though the order or agreement is registered with the MEP. This is allowed provided that the recipient agrees and the payments are made regularly. Table 4.2 describes the ways that payments are made in our sample of cases.

Table 4.2
Child Support Payment Methods
Payment method

Percentage of cases[16]

Directly to the MEP 59
Wage attachment 17
Through another MEP 11
FOAEA interception 11
Directly to recipient 3

4.4 Default and Enforcement Strategies

Cases in default are selected for attention in two ways. First, cases known to be problematic or that have had recent defaults are watched to ensure that subsequent obligations are met. Second, recipients are relied upon to call to the MEP’s attention payments which have not been received. Recipients routinely call the office to see if their cheque has come in, and if it is due and has not been received, such a telephone call will generate action by the MEP. The MEP recognizes that this approach places the onus on the recipients to instigate action, and also that recipients who frequently do not receive payments are forced into the role of calling the MEP on a regular basis to complain and to inquire about what is being done to get the payment from the paying parent. However, with the MEP’s existing staff, this is seen as the only feasible way at present to accommodate the large number of cases. Staff resources are limited and, rather than investigating all defaults immediately, the MEP must establish priorities.

The information system at the MEP in P.E.I. is capable of producing a list of cases (for example, on a weekly or monthly basis) in which an expected payment has not been received. At present, however, it would not differentiate between new defaults, defaults that were already recognized and in the process of being dealt with, or cases that had not been officially declared “inactive” even though MEP staff knew they did not need to act on them. The result would be that such a list would include a large number of cases that were inappropriate for new enforcement action. Such a list is not used at present.

4.4.1 Enforcement Actions

The MEP has a variety of enforcement tools at its disposal when child support payments do not arrive at their office on time, ranging from attaching wages through an employer, to requiring the paying parent to attend a default hearing at the Supreme Court, to the seeking of incarceration through the Court. The desired result, of course, is that payments are resumed, and that is the basis upon which decisions are made about which tool is best suited to individual cases. The approach taken in P.E.I. is to deal with each case individually according to its circumstances, as opposed to instituting a standardized approach in which a series of escalating enforcement steps are taken in a consistent sequence until payment is resumed. This is possible in P.E.I. because of its small geographic area and the ability of the MEP (with the Sheriff’s assistance) to find most paying parents who remain on the Island. However, it also stems from a philosophy adopted by the program that its clients are both recipients and paying parents, and that paying parents deserve to be given an opportunity to explain their circumstances and work out a reasonable payment arrangement. That being said, if that opportunity is not acted upon and does not result in compliance with the support order or agreement, the MEP is committed to use the enforcement tools at its disposal.

Decisions about which enforcement strategies to employ and which actions to take in specific cases can be complex, and depend on the availability of accurate and up-to-date information about the paying parents’ whereabouts, employment situation, income and pay schedule, as well as factors such as fluctuations in the living arrangements, age and school status of the children, extraordinary expenses that arise, and other factors that may have no legal basis but which can influence paying parents’ attitudes about payment, and therefore the likelihood that they will respond to particular enforcement strategies. It is true that the MEP is responsible for enforcing, and not for setting, payment amounts. However, the approach taken in P.E.I. is that if paying parents can show reason why it is not possible to make full payments (as a result of changed income circumstances, for example) or why they should not have to make payments (for example, if one or more children on the order are now residing with the paying parent), it is in the interests of the recipient to make a temporary arrangement to get some payment, while requiring the paying parent to take steps to obtain a variation of the support order.

In our sample, 59 percent of cases had never had an enforcement action taken, and in another 7 percent the only action was a payment order requiring the employer to deduct the support payments from the paying parent’s wages. Payment orders are worth distinguishing from other enforcement actions because they do not necessarily indicate a default on payment. If the paying parent does not respond within two weeks of receiving the initial letter from the MEP, a payment order is automatically sent to the employer. In some cases, there are reasons for the delayed response other than an intention not to pay. In most cases, however, the payment order indicates at least a reluctance to get payments started expeditiously, and it may indicate that the paying parent has missed scheduled payments. One-third of paying parents in our sample required enforcement action other than a payment order. Table 4.3 provides a breakdown of the types of enforcement actions used, and in how many cases each was used.

Table 4.3
Use of Enforcement Tools
Enforcement Activity Percentage of cases
No enforcement 59
Payment order 17
FOAEA interception 18
Default hearing[17] 11
Default meeting 9
Order or warrant for arrest 3
GAPDA 1 (3 cases)

Note: Percentages total more than 100 percent because in many cases more than one enforcement action was taken.

Our information on the comparative effectiveness of enforcement strategies in P.E.I. is restricted to the linking of the dates of specific actions and subsequent payment records. While this provides a useful measure, it risks oversimplifying the complex interactions often involved in enforcing child support. It is often the case, for example, that compliance results from a series of enforcement actions taken together. The form in which the data are available from the system would suggest that the earlier actions had failed and that the last action had succeeded, which would be an inaccurate conclusion. It may also be that the timing of a resumption of payment had more to do with a changed employment situation or a successful FOAEA garnishment than a specific local enforcement action, even though the dates suggest that payments were resumed soon after the local enforcement action.

Suspensions of driver’s licences do not show up in the P.E.I. data because no suspensions have taken place. (It is a recently acquired enforcement tool, based on an amendment to provincial legislation in January 1997.)[18] However, the MEP Director informs us that the threat of license suspension (in the form of a letter from the MEP) has been responsible for a resumption of payments in a significant number of cases in the last year or so (she estimated that 30 to 35 cases may have been influenced by the threat of suspension).

Table 4.4 describes the impact on payments of the most common types of enforcement actions taken in P.E.I., based on data from the information system. As we noted above, it is important to remember in looking at the figures that it is not possible in most cases to attribute a resumption of payments to a specific action at a specific point in time—many factors may be at play and influencing the ultimate decision to pay.

Table 4.4
Effectiveness of Enforcement
Type of
No resumption of payments Temporary resumption Resumption of payments Total number of actions
Payment order 17 36 47 86
FOAEA intercept 51 17 32 82
Default meeting 59 26 16 58
Default hearing 63 11 27 56

4.5 Child Support Payment Patterns

One of the goals of this research was to explore patterns of child support compliance and non-compliance beyond simply characterizing paying parents as either in compliance or default. In the strictest sense, paying parents are in default if they miss a scheduled payment according to their order or agreement, or if they pay less than what they are required to pay. However, there is a diversity of payment patterns ranging from full and consistent compliance, through various degrees and frequencies of default, to near or total non-compliance. The differences are of interest because they are a starting point for gaining a better understanding of why compliance and non-compliance occurs, and what policies might be employed to both encourage and enforce compliance. As to why payments are missed, the case files do not provide consistent information. In later sections of the report, we analyze interview information in conjunction with the payment patterns of interview respondents in order to look more closely at the factors which appear to be most influential in determining compliance and non-compliance.

The case file data from the P.E.I. MEP provide some considerable detail about payment patterns. For this research we started by using three complementary measures to characterize compliance and non-compliance.

  1. The first measure is the frequency of full, timely payment of monthly obligations. This provides us with the percentage of monthly payments that the paying parent has missed from the time that the case was registered at the MEP, to the date at which the data were collected in March 1999.
  2. The second measure is the proportion of the paying parents’ total obligation that they paid in the same period. Because some paying parents pay regularly but, for whatever reason, not in full, this measure is important in developing an overall characterization of compliance.
  3. The third measure is the extent to which arrears have been built up or paid down in the same time period. Only the net change in arrears is available, because the MEP accounting practices do not differentiate between payments that are intended to be directed toward arrears, and payments directed toward monthly obligations. In some cases, arrears have been built up prior to the file being opened at the MEP, so the file opens with an arrears amount. In most cases there are no arrears at the outset, so the net arrears figure represents the overall shortage in the payment of monthly obligations. What we have focussed on for this measure is the change in arrears while the case has been filed with the MEP.

We have also combined the first two measures, to characterize paying parents according to their record in paying regularly and paying in full. Because the arrears figure relates directly to the percentage of total obligation paid, unless there were prior arrears, and because we have no information about the reasons for those pre-MEP arrears, we have not included the arrears in our aggregate measure of compliance.

On average, the paying parents in our sample missed about one-third of monthly obligations; that is, for about one-third of all monthly obligations, the payment was missed in whole or in part. If a payment was within a few dollars of the obligation, it was recorded as a full payment. Otherwise, partial payments were recorded as missed payments for this measure. The median “miss rate” was about 20 percent of obligations missed. This indicates that a relatively small number of paying parents who missed very frequently brought the average up to the one-third level.

Table 4.5 describes the “miss rate” breakdown. It shows that about 28 percent of paying parents paid in full every month, and that another 21 percent missed 20 percent or fewer payments. The remaining paying parents are dispersed widely among the other ranges.

Table 4.5
Percentage of Missed Monthly Obligations
Percentage of monthly
obligations missed
Percentage of cases
None missed 28
1-20% 21
21-40% 15
41-60% 11
61-80% 9
81-99% 8
100% 7

Note: Due to rounding, not all percent columns will add to 100.

In examining the extent to which paying parents in P.E.I. met their total support obligations, the analysis is complicated by the fact that we do not have accurate figures on the amount of arrears that paying parents had when they entered the program. Figures for net arrears at the time of the data collection were available, but it was not possible to differentiate between arrears at entry and arrears accumulated while in the program (as a result of missed payments or new court assessments of arrears). Looking only at payments due since entry into the program, and comparing that to the total amount paid, paying parents in our sample paid, on average, 80 percent of their total obligations during the period in which they had a support order or agreement registered with the MEP. This includes situations in which paying parents had paid more than their total obligation (presumably against arrears). When we factor out those extra payments presumed to be intended to pay arrears, the average is reduced to 75 percent of total obligations. Another way of stating this is that, overall, the MEP has succeeded in collecting 75 percent of all obligations due by its paying clients, as well as some proportion of arrears not scheduled for monthly payment. Almost 40 percent of paying parents paid their full monthly obligation or more.

The fact that the overall records for total payments are more favourable than the records for meeting monthly obligations suggests that some missed payments are being made up in subsequent months. In many cases, this is a result of enforcement efforts. In some cases, an extraordinary circumstance or a period of unemployment may have resulted in missed payments, which were made up voluntarily once employment was resumed.

Table 4.6 describes the range of “pay rate” records. It shows that once we look below the 61 to 99 percent range (which means that 61 to 99 percent of the paying parent’s total obligation for the entire time the case has been registered with the MEP has been met), the remaining cases are distributed quite evenly through the other “pay rate” ranges.

Table 4.6
Percentage of Total Obligation Paid
Percentage of total
obligations paid
Percentage of cases
None paid 6
1-20% 6
21-40% 7
41-60% 7
61-80% 13
81-99% 22
100% 16
More than 100% 24

The compliance categories were developed by taking all possible combinations of “pay rate” and “miss rate” records, assigning paying parents to their combined record category, and then collapsing those categories into appropriate groups. For example, a paying parent may be categorized initially as “missed 21-30 percent of payments, paid obligation in full” or “missed 61-70 percent of payments, paid 21-30 percent of total obligation.”

This level of category was then divided into six groups. Those “fully compliant” had always paid in full every month. The “almost fully compliant” included those who missed a maximum of 10 percent of their monthly payments and paid 90 percent of their total obligation during their time registered with the P.E.I. MEP. The “quite compliant” group had missed up to 30 percent of their monthly payments (i.e., some monthly payments were missed altogether, were paid only partially, or were paid well past the due date) and were short up to a maximum of 30 percent of their total obligation over the period studied. That group may, in fact, have paid their total obligation in full, but were not deemed to be fully compliant because they had missed some payments (even if they made up the difference later). The “somewhat compliant” group included those with 31-60 percent of payments missed and a maximum of 60 percent of their total obligation missed, or those with up to 90 percent of monthly payments missed, but a maximum of 10 percent of their total obligation missed. The “almost non-compliant” paying parents missed 61-99 percent of their monthly payments and 11-99 percent of their total obligation, or never paid a full monthly payment, but nevertheless paid some part of their total obligation. The “non-compliant” paying parents never made a payment.

Combining the two measures into an overall characterization of compliance levels, we see that about 25 percent of paying parents in our sample were fully compliant (paid in full every month), while 6 percent were completely non-compliant. The remaining paying parents were distributed quite evenly through the remaining categories of overall compliance.

Table 4.7
Overall Compliance Records
Compliance category Number of
paying parents
Percentage of
paying parents
Fully compliant 112 25
Almost fully compliant 74 16
Quite compliant 78 17
Somewhat compliant 92 20
Almost completely non-compliant 74 16
Completely non-compliant 27 6

About 55 percent of paying parents in the sample had accrued some level of arrears as a result of not making payments in full. A majority of those (35 percent of all paying parents) had accrued more than $1,000 in arrears, and a small number had accrued very large arrears (the largest net arrears figure was higher than $68,000, and the next highest was $38,000). At the same time, some paying parents paid their monthly obligations and made significant payments against arrears over and above that. About 20 percent of paying parents just paid their monthly obligations and never accrued arrears.

Table 4.8
Arrears Accrued or Paid Off
Net arrears Percentage of paying parents
Paid off more than $1,000 7
Paid off $501-$1,000 5
Paid off up to $500 13
No net change 20
Accrued up to $500 13
Accrued $501-$1,000 7
Accrued $1,001-$2,500 13
Accrued $2,501-$5,000 8
Accrued $5,001-$10,000 11
Accrued more than $10,000 4

4.6 Summary of Findings Relating to the Case File Data

This section of the report has described the paying parents and recipients of child support registered with the MEP in P.E.I., the orders and agreements under which support obligations are established, the methods used to pay support and to enforce compliance, and the patterns of compliance and non-compliance.

We have seen that while the majority of child support amounts are in the smaller range (two-thirds are $300 a month or lower, and 43 percent are $200 a month or lower), support is not forthcoming on a regular basis in three-quarters of the cases, and in about 42 percent of cases there are significant default problems. Our two primary measures of compliance—the frequency with which monthly obligations are paid in full and on time, and the percentage of total obligations paid—indicate that the problems with compliance are complex and vary greatly in nature. A substantial number of paying parents pay in full and on time every month. Some pay in full for extended periods, miss a number of months, and then resume payments and gradually pay off the arrears. Some paying parents pay at least some amount all or most months, but frequently pay less than what they are obliged to pay. Some pay very sporadically and in amounts not clearly tied to their monthly obligations. The degree of variation in payment patterns suggests that many factors influence whether or not support obligations are met, and that in individual cases compliance may be tied to a single predominant factor or some combination of factors.

The analysis of MEP case files also provided us with information about the enforcement strategies used by the MEP, and some information about the resulting payment behaviour. However, it is clear from this analysis, and from the researchers’ detailed review of the MEP files, that it is not possible to obtain an accurate picture of the relationship between specific enforcement measures and resumptions in payments, and it is unwise to assume a “cause and effect” relationship, even when a resumption in payment closely follows the initiation of a specific enforcement action. There may well be some enforcement measures that work better than others, and some enforcement strategies that prove to be more effective in the aggregate. Our analysis thus far suggests that in order to identify those “best practices” in the enforcement of child support orders, more research is required. In particular, our research thus far suggests that a necessary next step will be to examine a sample of cases in detail, in order to follow the full sequence of events and communications between the MEP and the paying parent and recipient, identify the reasons why certain enforcement actions were taken and what the response was according to the enforcement officer, and interview the recipient and paying parent to understand as fully as possible what factors may have influenced the payment pattern.

Analysis of the MEP case file data was a first step. It indicates the extent of the problem with non-compliance and suggests by the wide range of payment patterns the complexity of understanding why some paying parents pay support regularly and in full and others do not. In itself, however, the analysis does not provide much insight into the factors influencing compliance and non-compliance. For that, we needed information about the paying parents that is not available in the MEP files.

In the next section, we examine the results of interviews with a sample of paying parents and recipients, and relate those findings to the payment patterns described above, to investigate possible relationships between compliance patterns and factors that may influence compliance and non-compliance. We also include the findings of interviews with lawyers, judges, mediators, social workers and other professionals working with separating parents with children, to get their views about how parents in P.E.I. experience the separation process and what factors may influence compliance.

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