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



The primary focus of the research in P.E.I. was to explore factors that may influence compliance and non-compliance with child support orders. The premise underlying the research was that while ability to pay is often an important factor, other factors related to willingness to pay child support come into play and may at times be strong determinants. To examine these factors and assess the extent of their influence, the research included interviews with paying parents and recipients of child support as well as lawyers, judges, social workers, mediators and other people connected with the court who work with separating parents with children.

The interviews with parents were designed to make it possible to link their responses to information about their cases at the Maintenance Enforcement Program, in order to examine possible links between paying parents’ compliance records and the factors explored in the interviews. It was recognized that the decisions paying parents make about paying child support may often be based on complex circumstances, attitudes and inter-personal relationships. Research in this area is new, and many questions have yet to be explored about the factors that influence compliance. In most cases, they do not operate in isolation, and the ways they interact—their relative influence under different circumstances and how changes of circumstances over time affect decisions about paying child support—all need to be examined.

With these complexities and the narrow base of existing research on factors related to “willingness to pay”, the scope of the parent interviews in P.E.I. was limited. We set out to identify factors that appear to influence compliance with child support orders and agreements. To the extent that the numbers of cases involved in the research allowed, we hoped to identify some factors that are strongly influential, and learn more about how to examine those particular factors in detail within the context of the larger compliance project of which the P.E.I. study is a first stage. We also hoped to lay groundwork so that an anticipated research project in other provinces, with larger numbers of interviews to work with, will be able to explore how the key determining factors interact over time. Ultimately, it is hoped that the larger study will be able to identify some “paying parent profiles” that incorporate categories of support payment records and key factors influencing compliance.

The interviews for P.E.I. were extracted randomly from our larger sample of cases drawn from the MEP database, in order to make the linkage with MEP payment records possible. No specific type of case was targeted. The sample from which the interview cases were extracted was also randomly selected, so the presumption was made that the range of cases thus selected would approximate the range in the overall caseload at the MEP. It was recognized that some bias would result from the process of prospective respondents agreeing or refusing to participate in the interviews, and that those who chose to participate might be more likely to share certain perspectives than those who chose not to participate. Certainly it proved easier to contact paying parents who were high or moderate compliers, than those with poor compliance records. However, the interviews that were conducted provided a sufficient range of paying parent types to enable us to compare the influence of the factors we were interested in across different kinds of payment records.

In all, 130 interviews were completed in P.E.I. (or in some cases in other jurisdictions, where parents registered with the MEP had moved). These included 51 paying parents (the great majority were fathers) and 79 recipients under child support orders or agreements. In 31 cases, matching paying parents and recipients were interviewed, enabling us to identify where the parents corroborated or contradicted each other’s perspective.

The interviews included many questions and raised a wide range of complex issues: the parents’ relationships with each other and with the children before and after separation; their experiences with the separation process and with whatever aspects of the legal system they encountered; the kinds of agreements or court orders under which child support and parenting (custody and access) were arranged and their experiences with those arrangements; and their experiences with child support enforcement and the MEP itself.

This section of the report provides an initial analysis of the results of the interviews, organized under what is identified in the literature as factors that could influence compliance and non-compliance.[19] The analysis is “initial” for several reasons. First, few studies have been completed to date that examine “willingness to pay” factors, and those that have been done do not link their findings to actual support payment records. As well, sample sizes for studies that have examined these types of factors have been small. The present study and the planned subsequent research in other provinces were intended to advance the research by conducting larger numbers of interviews with both paying parents and recipients, matched where possible, and by linking the interview responses to payment records.

The research is nevertheless exploratory, in that we did not set out to test specific hypotheses about individual factors. While we had some understanding of the kinds of factors that may influence compliance, we were not in a position to make a priori assumptions about which factors might be most influential under what circumstances. The reasons why individuals comply or do not comply with child support orders are likely to be complex and interrelated, having to do with relationships developed over some years, attitudes stemming from a variety of experiences, and the day-to-day experiences involved in separating from a partner and building a new life. In planning the interviews, we used a variety of indicators related to the factors we were interested in to find out more about any relationships with compliance patterns. We hoped to identify factors that appear to influence compliance more than others, to contribute to more focussed research in the future and to assess the methods we have used in order to plan similar research in other provinces.

The analysis is also considered “initial” because, while 130 interviews is a substantial number and have provided much useful information, the sample is still too small to allow for some kinds of analysis that would be desirable. For example, as we examine individual variables from the interviews and attempt to associate them with compliance patterns, we find that the numbers of responses in the different categories are sometimes too small to allow for the identification of meaningful relationships.[20] As we report in the sections below, the data certainly suggest that some relationships seem likely, but we are not able to report in a meaningful way the levels of significance in those relationships. In addition, the numbers do not permit a more sophisticated multivariate analysis that would test the strength of relationships while correcting for the influence of other variables, or the interrelationship of the factors when examined together.

Finally, the depth of information gleaned from the interviews means that there will continue to be potential avenues of analysis beyond what is reported here. This report provides a first level of analysis focussing on individual variables and some groupings of variables that appear most likely to help explain why some paying parents pay child support regularly and in full, and others do not. It makes use of both a quantitative analysis as well as a qualitative review of key areas of the interviews that were either not suitable for coding and quantitative analysis or benefited from the more detailed analysis that the qualitative review made possible. The findings from the interviews with professionals are also integrated into these sub-sections as appropriate.

The analysis is organized under the following headings, each representing a grouping of types of factors believed by researchers to influence compliance:

  • employment and income;
  • orders and agreements relating to child support, custody and access;
  • the separation process;
  • the relationship between paying parent and children;
  • the relationship between the parents.

5.1 Employment and Income

While “willingness to pay” factors are the focus of this study, the research design provided a limited opportunity to analyze some information about the employment and income situations of paying parents and to examine the extent that these “ability to pay” factors may determine compliance with child support obligations. Knowing more about parents’ “ability” to pay was expected to help us understand the significance of their willingness to pay, which is our main interest here.

It is worth noting that the distinction between “ability to pay” and “willingness to pay” is not always obvious when examining individual circumstances. If paying parents are earning less than what they are expected to pay in child support due to a change in income, those parents are clearly unable to pay. Similarly, if paying parents have only enough money to cover the most basic costs of living for themselves—food, shelter and clothing—it is fair to say that they are unable to pay child support, and if that circumstance is expected to continue for some time, they must seek a variation to their support order that recognizes their inability to pay.

Prior to the implementation of the Federal Child Support Guidelines, support amounts varied widely, and the criteria used to determine a support amount were inconsistent. Some orders took into account the seasonality of employment or previous histories of unstable employment, while others did not. Some orders specified differing amounts depending on whether the paying parent was employed, on Employment Insurance or without income, while other orders left it to the paying parents to seek a variation when a change in employment took place. Under the Guidelines, foreseen variations in income during the course of a year are factored into the support amount. The courts can base the support amount on average earnings over the previous three years if there is a question about the representativeness of the income for the previous year. Basing the support amount on the paying parent’s ability to pay is a cornerstone of the Guidelines, and only unexpected changes in employment status should result in a real inability to pay.

Of course, child support obligations in most cases place financial pressure on paying parents. This is to be expected given that the two parents now have two households to maintain instead of one. It is in the setting of priorities for how to spend scarce resources that the issue of “ability” versus “willingness” becomes cloudy for some paying parents and observers. It is common for paying parents who are struggling to make ends meet to miss child support payments or pay less than was owed because other expenses took precedence. For example, unexpected repairs to a vehicle considered vital to the parent’s employment might take precedence over child support. Payments for furniture to equip the paying parent’s household as a suitable place for the children might similarly take precedence. In these examples, difficulty in setting priorities may be understandable, and some observers might consider them cases of inability to pay. However, the payment of child support is intended to be a first priority, so strictly speaking they have chosen not to pay, even though the money was available.

Enforcement officers we interviewed described many other examples when the paying parent cited an inability to pay, but when the expenditures that came before child support seemed less “necessary,” for example, a paying parent who just bought a new vehicle and now had high monthly payments, or a paying parent who had taken the children on a vacation and now had to make payments due on debts accrued for that vacation. Some paying parents reportedly withhold child support because they do not agree with how it is being spent by the custodial parent, or because they have concerns about how the children are being raised. At the extreme, of course, some paying parents simply refuse to pay support because of their strong feelings about their ex-partners, regardless of their ability to pay. These circumstances are examined further in this chapter, but the point here was to show that the distinction between ability and willingness to pay support, while clear in most cases, is less clear in some circumstances, and that an inability to pay is often confused with decisions about how available money (often scarce) will be spent.

The MEP files in P.E.I. do not contain any systematic information about the incomes of paying parents. In some cases, the hard files contained copies of court orders that referred to income levels as a basis for deciding on the support amount, but this was not generally available, and even that would not tell the story of the actual income of paying parents during the period under study. Similarly, the MEP does not maintain systematic information on employment. Descriptive information is sometimes available, since enforcement officers report on paying parents’ responses to default inquiries, but no employment trail is recorded. In order to obtain some information on these two potentially important compliance-related factors, we included questions about income and employment in the interviews with parents. The information was in no way verified, and no attempt was made to record a detailed employment trail that could be linked to payment patterns. Still, it is of interest to link these measures of income and employment to compliance records.

As we anticipated from the range of support amounts in our sample, there was also a wide range of reported incomes, as indicated in Table 5.1A. Recipients’ reported incomes are lower on average than paying parents’ reported incomes. We asked both parents to estimate the annual incomes of their former partners (more as a gauge of their perspectives and attitudes than to get accurate information). About half of both paying parents and recipients said they had no idea and did not speculate. However, those who did estimate (or speculate) tended to think that their former partners’ incomes were higher than what the ex-partners’ reported. (Note: In the tables in this chapter, the total number of possible cases is 99, and the total number of possible individual responses to specific questions is 130. This difference is due to the fact that in 31 of the cases we examined we were able to interview both the paying parent and the recipient about the same case. Where totals in tables are less than the full sample of 130 or 99, it means that some parents did not provide responses to the specific questions being addressed, i.e. missing cases. Unless otherwise indicated, all tables in this chapter refer to information that reflects no discrepancy between what was reported by the paying parents and what was reported by the recipients.)

Table 5.1A
Reported Incomes of Paying Parents and Recipients in the Full Sample of Parents Interviewed
Income range Paying parent income Recipient income
Less than $19,999 24% 36%
$20,000-$39,999 47% 48%
$40,000 or more 28% 16%
Total number of cases 49 79
Table 5.1B
Reported Incomes of Paying Parents and Recipients in Cases
in which Both Parents were Interviewed
Income range Paying parent income Recipient estimate of paying parent income Recipient
Paying parent estimate of recipient income
Less than $19,999 27% 0% 35% 19%
$20,000-$39,999 36% 60% 48% 37%
$40,000 or more 36% 39% 16% 45%
Total number of cases 30 15 31 16

5.1.1 Reported Incomes and Compliance

Throughout this section, paying parents have been classified as being in either “high compliance”, “moderate compliance” or “low compliance”. These three categories correspond to the six categories used in the previous section of this report, with “high” including paying parents who have been fully or almost fully compliant, “moderate” including paying parents who have been “quite” or “somewhat” compliant, and “low” corresponding to those paying parents who have been almost “non-compliant” or “completely non-compliant”. As we noted in the previous section, these categories are based on two key measures of compliance, one focussing on the frequency with which monthly obligations were met, and the other focussing on the proportion of total obligations paid.

When we look at the compliance rates of paying parents in the various reported income categories, we see that those in the higher income ranges are more likely to be in high compliance and considerably less likely to have a low compliance record (Table 5.2), although with only five of the paying parents interviewed falling into the low compliance category, this latter relationship may not be indicative beyond this sample.

Table 5.2
Compliance and Annual Incomes Reported by Paying Parent[21]
Annual reported income range High
Moderate compliance Low
% No. % No. % No.
Less than $20,000 33 4 42 5 25 3
$20,000-$39,999 39 9 52 12 9 2
$40,000 or more 71 10 29 4 0 0
Total 47 23 43 21 10 5

Note: In tables such as this where only the paying parents are involved, the total number of possible cases is 51. In some tables, missing cases (non-responses to questions) reduce the total cases shown.

Some studies have looked at the size of the support award as a proportion of paying parent income, and suggested that the size of the award did not influence compliance until it exceeded 25 percent of gross income.[22] Our figures from the sample of parents interviewed in P.E.I. indicate that when the award represents 15 percent or less of gross annual income, compliance tends to be higher (averaging about 60 percent of cases in high compliance and only one case out of 32 in the lowest compliance category), whereas when the support award moves above 15 percent, compliance tends to decrease. When the award is between 15 and 25 percent, about a quarter of the cases are in high compliance and most others are in the moderate compliance category. The support award was greater than 25 percent of gross income in only three cases.

Higher incomes suggest a greater ability to pay because there is likely to be greater flexibility and stability to cope with disruptions to income or unexpected expenses. To the extent that this is true, the cases that do not fit the pattern of higher income resulting in better compliance suggest that willingness to pay factors may be more important. Previous research has been inconsistent in its findings with regard to the compliance levels of high-income paying parents; it may be that among high-income paying parents, differences stem from willingness rather than ability, or that “ability/inability” is based upon different kinds of lifestyle expectations.

Among those cases when compliance has been moderate, income levels do not appear to be a strong determinant.

5.1.2 Employment and Compliance

Employment and the stability of employment can be important factors in compliance. This is apparent from previous research and was confirmed in our review of MEP files, where paying parents in default frequently reported disruptions to income because of layoffs, the seasonal nature of their occupations, or injuries or illness. Because the MEPs do not record ongoing employment information, it is not possible for us to link specific missed support payments to employment disruptions. However, we can report what paying parents told us about their employment. Table 5.3 shows employment status at the time of the interview, and indicates whether employment was reported as full-time and generally continuous during the period under study, or disrupted at times (a more detailed breakdown of disruption patterns was not possible with the number of paying parent interviews conducted).

Table 5.3
Paying Parent Employment Patterns
Employment status[23] Percentage of
paying parents
Number of
paying parents
Full-time when interviewed 67 34
Seasonal when interviewed 24 12
Unemployed when interviewed 10 5
Total 100 51
Employed regularly through study period 38 19
Disrupted employment through study period 62 31
Total number of cases 100 50

Most but not all applicable orders and agreements take into account the seasonal nature of a paying parent’s employment. Typically, in P.E.I. at least, the support amount is averaged out to include both employed and unemployed periods, and the paying parent is responsible for setting aside enough employment income to be able to maintain support payments while unemployed (in many cases Employment Insurance becomes the basis for payment of support, and the funds are garnished directly from the federal government). Where unemployment extends for lengthy periods or is chronic, the paying parent is expected to seek a variation through the court to lower (or even temporarily suspend) the child support obligation. However, in many cases the paying parent does not do so, and often in those cases the MEP makes a series of attempts to collect the support payments due.[24] In other cases, the recipient may not report the missing payments (presumably aware that the paying parent has no income), and the MEP only realizes the problem after the paying parent’s arrears accumulate to a considerable amount.

Both current and continuous employment patterns as reported by paying parents in our sample show a link with compliance. Fully employed paying parents are most likely to be in high compliance (Table 5.4). The income associated with full and stable employment clearly increases the ability to pay child support. When employment is inconsistent, however, other factors may come into play, such as an individual’s reluctance to pay child support or the placing of other interests in higher priority. In our interviews with recipient parents, paying parents’ difficulties with substance abuse, or what was described in a number of cases as a general lack of responsibility, were viewed as the major contributing factors to the unstable employment. Interviews with recipient parents and with the professionals consulted during the research suggest also that some paying parents have deliberately avoided steady employment, or hidden the fact that they were employed, in order to avoid paying child support. We have no way of knowing how prevalent these factors are in our interview sample, but to the extent that they exist they would extend the explanation of the link between unstable employment and poorer compliance beyond the “ability to pay” model.

Table 5.4
Compliance and Paying Parent Employment
Employment status High
Moderate compliance Low
% No. % No. % No.
Full-time when interviewed 56 19 35 12 9 3
Seasonal when interviewed 33 4 67 8 0 0
Unemployed when interviewed 20 1 40 2 40 2
Total 47 24 43 22 10 5
Employed regularly through study period 58 11 42 8 0 0
Disrupted employment through study period 42 13 42 13 16 5
Total 48 24 42 21 10 5

The fact that disruptions to employment show a tendency to reduce compliance indicates that paying parents do not generally take advantage of the legal remedy of support order reduction when their income is reduced. Some paying parents in our sample reported that they never bothered to seek a variation because they couldn’t afford a lawyer or didn’t know how to go about it. With federal government support, the Family Court in P.E.I. has recently introduced a service for helping parents apply for variations, but this is relatively new and not yet widely known.

5.1.3 Money Management and Compliance

We looked at one final indicator of the financial situation of paying parents: their reported money management history. We asked both parents about any debt problems they may have had while together, and also asked the paying parents about their current debt situation. In the first matter, parents generally agreed about whether or not there had been debt problems. In only one case did two parents disagree about the state of their indebtedness when they were together. This lends strength to the accuracy of the characterizations. As Table 5.5 shows, debt problems were frequent in our sample of cases. Table 5.6 shows how paying parents characterized their situations at the time of the interviews. These indicate somewhat better situations on average, but still substantial concerns about financial matters.

Table 5.5
Family Money Management Pre-Separation
Degree of debt problem Number
of cases
of cases
Serious 27 29
Some problems, but not too serious 26 28
Money tight, but no debt problems 12 13
No financial problems 28 30
Total 93 100
Table 5.6
Current Paying Parent Money Management (Reported by Paying Parent)
Degree of debt problem Number
of cases
of cases
Serious 8 16
Some problems, but not too serious 16 31
Money tight, but no debt problems 8 16
No financial problems 19 37
Total 51 100

We would expect that cases in which there were money management problems when the family was together might experience a greater problem with defaulting on child support payments. However, this would not necessarily indicate that ability to pay is the primary determinant. Money management problems often result from a combination of income difficulties and poor spending decisions. Where child support default is a problem, it could be argued (and was in many cases by recipients in our sample) that money management problems reflected a higher priority placed on expenses other than the child support.

Table 5.7 indicates that, indeed, compliance is higher among those cases reporting no money management problems. While the picture is not as clear in looking at the reported current debt situation, paying parents reporting serious debt problems are certainly more likely than others to have serious compliance problems, and less likely to be in high compliance (Table 5.8).

Table 5.7
Compliance and Current Family Debt Situation
Reported debt situation High
Moderate compliance Low
% No. % No. % No.
Serious 33 9 44 12 22 6
Some problems, but not too serious 35 9 42 11 23 6
Money tight, but no debt problems 58 7 25 3 17 2
No financial problems 57 16 39 11 4 1
Total 44 41 40 37 16 15
Table 5.8
Compliance and Current Paying Parent Debt Situation (Self-Reported)
Reported debt situation High
Moderate compliance Low
% No. % No. % No.
Serious 13 1 63 5 25 2
Some problems, but not too serious 56 9 44 7 0 0
Money tight, but no debt problems 25 2 50 4 25 2
No financial problems 63 12 32 6 5 1
Total 47 24 43 22 10 5

The data we have reported in this section are limited in their value because they rely on self-reported income levels and employment histories, with no objective verification. Assuming they are reasonably accurate, they suggest that income, employment stability and money management are often factors in determining compliance with child support obligations. They also indicate that compliance and non-compliance must in many cases result from other factors besides these “ability to pay” factors. In the remaining sections of this chapter, we examine factors related to willingness to pay.

5.2 Orders and Agreements Relating to Parenting and Child Support

In this section, we examine the orders and agreements that were put in place to establish parenting arrangements and child support, and the arrangements that were ultimately made to share parenting and provide support. First, we look at the type of order or agreement involved, and then we examine the specific provisions regarding the residence of the children, the amount of time to be spent with the children by the parent who is not the primary caregiver, and the amount of child support. Each of these is viewed as factors that may influence compliance, either in themselves or in some combination with the factors considered here or with factors examined elsewhere in this section. One presumption we were interested in examining was whether, if the separation results in arrangements that foster active participation in parenting by the non-resident parent, compliance would be more likely. A second was whether, if the parenting arrangements were viewed as reasonable by both parents, compliance with child support would be more likely.

5.2.1 Type of Order/Agreement

One indicator of the nature of the separation process is whether child support is determined under a court order or by agreement between the parents. In cases when the MEP is enforcing an agreement reached by the two parents (generally, but not always, registered with the court), it is recorded as a support agreement, rather than an order. However, the distinction between an order and an agreement is not as clear as we would like for analytic purposes, because child support is often one of several issues (others are custody, access or the division of assets) being dealt with at once. So, the parents could agree on child support, but the matter might still go to court as part of the overall separation arrangement, and be issued as an order from the court.[25] Still, it is fair to say that support orders are more likely than support agreements to reflect a lack of agreement between the parents about child support. It would be reasonable to expect that compliance would be greater in cases where agreement was reached between the parents without the need for a court order.

Data from the parent interview sample confirm to some extent the presumption about compliance: cases under an agreement are more likely to be in the high compliance category and less likely to be in the lowest compliance category (Table 5.9).[26]

Table 5.9
Compliance and Source of Order/Agreement
Source High
Moderate compliance Low
% No. No. % % No.
Court order 42 29 39 27 19 13
Agreement 53 16 40 12 7 2
Total 46 45 39 39 15 15

5.2.2 Provisions Regarding the Residence of the Children

The most typical immediate post-separation situation in the cases in our sample was that the paying parent moved out of the family home, and no formal arrangement was made for the paying parent to share in the parenting responsibilities. In 63 percent of the cases, the situation was described by both parents as the recipient parent having sole custody of the children. This description may not have the same meaning as a court decision for sole custody, but in practical terms it meant that the children resided with the recipient parent and, to a greater or lesser degree (or in some cases not at all), the paying parent would take the children for short periods. The children in those cases would never reside with the paying parent on a regular basis. In all but one of the remaining 37 percent of cases, parenting was described as being shared, usually with the recipient parent’s home as the primary residence for the children. In one case the paying parent was said to have sole custody, and in three others the primary residence was said to be the paying parent’s. In five cases, custody was described as being shared equally. The fact that child support is required by one of the parents usually indicates that the recipient parent has some additional parenting responsibilities, but with a private agreement there could also be a transfer of income in a fully shared parenting arrangement.[27]

Other things being equal, we would expect that parents with an active role in looking after the children (which is certainly indicated by the fact that the children reside with them some of the time) would be more likely to be committed to supporting their financial needs. Parents residing with the children on a regular basis may also have a greater appreciation of the work and expense involved. This can work the opposite way, however. When the paying parent’s custody of the children is frequent (say, two or three days a week), the paying parent may consider child support to be unwarranted because he or she is incurring child care expenses as well. Child support awards take these factors into account, but perceptions of fairness in the sharing of expenses (and even actual expenditures) can be complex and don’t always coincide with the rationale upon which a support order or agreement is based.

Table 5.10
Compliance and Custody Arrangement
Custody arrangement High
Moderate compliance Low
% No. % No. % No.
Sole custody of recipient parent 39 24 42 26 19 12
Shared custody* 56 20 36 13 8 3
Total 45 44 40 39 15 15
* Situations in which the children reside with the paying parent on a regularly scheduled basis throughout the year.

As Table 5.10 indicates, the shared custody cases in our sample were substantially more likely to result in high compliance with child support, and also less likely to result in low compliance, than the sole custody cases.

5.2.3 Provisions for Paying Parents’ Time With the Children

In the majority of our cases, no set times were established for the paying parent to spend time with the children, which is another characteristic of situations when one parent leaves the family home without making a formal arrangement. In 56 percent of cases, no access/visitation arrangement was made at all, and no subsequent arrangement was made later on. In another 8 percent of cases, an agreement established a rough proportion of the time that the non-custodial parent would spend with the children, but no set days or times were agreed to. This latter arrangement, as with the cases with no arrangement, frequently resulted in limited contact with the children by the non-custodial parent. In the remaining 35 percent of cases, an order or agreement established regular days and times for visitation or for the children to reside with the paying parent.

If the establishment of regular visitation arrangements is interpreted as indicating a higher degree of interest or a greater ongoing commitment to the children, then we might expect higher compliance to follow. It is not uncommon, however, for a lack of formal arrangement early in a separation to reflect one or both partners’ reluctance to complete the transition from intimate, relatively free-flowing family relationships to more formally structured ones. Comparing the compliance records of the two groups shows that cases with no agreed upon arrangement for visitation by the non-custodial parent were less likely to have high compliance, and somewhat more likely to have low compliance but only marginally (Table 5.11). The fact that the relationship with compliance is not a strong one suggests that less formal arrangements may, in some cases, still allow the paying parent to maintain a relationship with the children, or that there are other factors more influential in determining compliance.

Table 5.11
Compliance and Visitation Arrangement
Visitation arrangement High
Moderate compliance Low
% No. % No. % No.
No set arrangement 43 23 39 21 19 10
Arrangement in place 48 20 40 17 12 5
Total 45 43 40 38 16 15

5.2.4 Provisions for Child Support

A third element of orders and agreements is for child support. In many of our cases, no child support arrangement was made in the immediate post-separation period, but in all of our cases a formal order or agreement was ultimately put in place and was administered (and if necessary enforced) by the MEP. The amount of those orders varies considerably, but the majority were for $300 a month or less. About 16 percent of cases in the interview sample had an order for more than $500 per month (Table 5.12).

Table 5.12
Amount of Most Recent Child Support Orders/Agreements[28]
Size of order (per month) Percentage of cases Number of cases
Up to $100 12 12
$101-$200 21 21
$201-$300 30 30
$301-$400 11 11
$401-$500 9 9
More than $500 16 16
Total 100 99

One might assume that higher child support obligations would be more likely to lead to non-compliance, simply because they could be more difficult to pay or engender greater reluctance to pay. However, support orders, even before the Federal Child Support Guidelines were in place, were based largely on a paying parent’s ability to pay. On that basis, a low support amount might be just as much of a burden (or engender just as much reluctance) for one parent as a higher amount would be for another parent who had a higher income. We would expect, then, that the amount of the support order might have little bearing on compliance.

In fact, while the pattern is not completely consistent, there appears to be a link between compliance and the amounts of the orders. That is, the higher the support amount, the greater the likelihood of high compliance. The same does not hold true for low compliance, but the numbers of cases (15 in total) in this category, when divided among the various support order amounts, are too small for meaningful analysis (Table 5.13).

Table 5.13
Compliance and Child Support Amounts
Monthly child
support requirement
Moderate compliance Low
% No. % No. % No.
Up to $200 33 11 55 18 12 4
$201-$400 51 21 29 12 20 8
More than $400 52 13 36 9 12 3
Total 46 45 39 39 15 15

A number of explanations are possible for this relationship. As we noted above, the higher support amounts indicate a greater ability to pay, which may correspond to greater employment stability and an increased likelihood that the overall resources of the paying parent would be great enough to deal with any income disruptions that might arise.[29] This explanation highlights the ability to pay as a factor, which we know it is, in at least some cases, from previous research and the earlier section in this chapter. It may also be that, in some cases, the support amounts at the low end are associated with paying parents whose employment instability corresponds to other factors in the family relationship as well. For example, while we did not systematically track cases of substance abuse or other reported psychological or behavioural problems, these were reported by recipients to be contributing factors in some cases, and as having been a problem throughout the relationship between the parents and with the children.

In some cases with lower support amounts, the support order resulted from the provincial social services department seeking repayment of social assistance. In some of those cases in our sample, the paying parent reported a reluctance to pay because the money went to reimburse the provincial government rather than to the children. It is also possible that in those cases, prior to the order being made or even under the order, the paying parent was paying the recipient some amount directly, so the children would benefit from both sources of income.

Also, paying parents with moderate incomes but only one child may have lower support amounts to pay, in which case factors other than ability to pay may be more determinant of compliance.

Paying parents in the $301-$400 a month range show a higher propensity to have low compliance. We see no obvious explanation for this, and will be interested to examine this phenomenon if it emerges with larger sample sizes in subsequent research in other provinces.

In summary, the nature of the most recent orders/agreements for parenting and child support appear to be factors in compliance that are sufficiently important to warrant more extensive future research on compliance in other provinces. Where a parenting arrangement is made that includes shared residence with the children, compliance appears to be higher. When formal visitation arrangements are in place, compliance is marginally higher. The size of the child support obligation appears to matter as well, in that higher amounts result in better compliance. Finally, arrangements in which child support is based on an agreement rather than a court order appear more likely to result in higher compliance.

This section has focussed on the orders and agreements themselves. The process through which they are set in place may also influence paying parents’ attitudes about child support, and may provide us with a clearer understanding of how to interpret the findings on the orders/agreements. The next section looks at the separation process, and how parenting and support arrangements came about in our sample.

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