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



The objectives of the P.E.I. project were to identify factors in the lives of paying parents and their former partners and children that appear to influence compliance, and to draw on the experience in P.E.I. to plan further research in other provinces across the country. We recognized that this initial research represented an early step in an attempt to identify factors that influence compliance and non-compliance. There was, however, a presumption—based on existing literature on compliance patterns and the attitudes of parents obliged to pay child support—that factors related to a willingness to pay child support (as opposed to ability to pay) were important in understanding compliance, and the research focussed on these kinds of factors primarily. We hoped that the information from P.E.I. would shed some light on these “willingness” factors, help to identify factors or groups of factors that are more strongly determinant than others, and help to guide the direction of future research, both by identifying the most relevant factors and by suggesting methodological improvements.

Our findings on patterns of compliance and default indicate that while the P.E.I. MEP has succeeded in collecting nearly 75 percent of overall child support obligations in our sample of cases, about 75 percent of paying parents do not pay support regularly and in full, and about 42 percent frequently fail to make full payments. This suggests that while circumstances have improved markedly in P.E.I. from the time prior to the establishment of the MEP (when child support payment was reportedly as low as 25 percent of overall support by some estimates), there is still considerable opportunity for improvement, not only in enforcement but potentially in other policy and program areas that could influence compliance.

In the area of enforcement, we determined that it was not possible from an analysis of MEP case file data alone to assess the effectiveness of the various enforcement actions that are used, or to assess their relative effectiveness in various given circumstances. Data that are recorded on enforcement actions taken cannot be linked in a meaningful way to payment records, and it is apparent from our review of procedures and the case files in P.E.I. that it would be a mistake to assume a direct relationship between individual enforcement actions and payments against defaults. The motivations for payments on defaulted accounts may in many cases be combinations of factors. Even if a particular enforcement action appears to have resulted in payment, it may not have been as effective if other measures had not also been in place. As well, there may always be circumstances unknown to the MEP office that change coincidentally with an enforcement action. We have concluded that a case study approach involving a more detailed review of a sample of cases would be necessary to assess the effectiveness of enforcement approaches.

By linking data on support payment patterns with information gleaned from detailed interviews with parents, we have been able to investigate a range of factors that we believed, based on previous research, might influence compliance. Interviews with lawyers, judges, court workers, social workers and MEP officers who work with separating parents in P.E.I. helped us to understand some of the circumstances in which compliance decisions were made, and provided some insights to help us interpret the findings from the interviews with parents.

Our research supports the underlying premise of the study, that while ability to pay can often be an important factor in determining compliance, factors relating to “willingness to pay” child support can also be influential. Linking income and employment information with payment records indicates that while those “ability to pay” factors may certainly play a role, substantial numbers of default situations do not appear to be explained by those factors. While the paying parents we interviewed did not typically make clear statements to the effect that they chose not to pay their support obligations, our data suggest that some “willingness to pay” factors give rise to either higher compliance rates or lower ones, depending on the nature of the factor. These tendencies in the data are supported by commentary by many of the paying parents, by the views of the recipient parents, and by the views of the professionals we interviewed who work with separating parents.

While the P.E.I. research was largely exploratory and did not attempt to test specific hypotheses about “willingness to pay” factors, we did begin the study with some presumptions, based on previous research, about the kinds of factors that might influence compliance. Some of these presumptions are borne out by the data, while others are not. We have also seen that the numbers of interviews in P.E.I., when broken down between paying and recipient parents, and viewed in the context of the interrelatedness of many of the factors examined, limit our ability to make inferences about the strength of some of the relationships between compliance and some potentially determining factors. It was understood in advance of the research that the P.E.I. data would be limited in this way. The intention was to learn what we could from the P.E.I. research, as a basis for proceeding with similar research in other provinces.

In reporting our research findings, the emphasis is on the actions of the paying parents in terms of their compliance with child support obligations. However, the influencing factors themselves are identified and described through the responses of both paying parents and recipients. In some cases the perspective of the paying parent is of primary interest because we see that as most likely to influence support payment behaviour. In other cases an effort has been made to describe the nature of specific circumstances (such as parenting arrangements) and relationships using both sets of responses.

One of the presumptions we made at the outset was that the type of post-separation living arrangement in place could influence compliance, and that cases in which the children resided with both parents on a regular basis (or at least spent a lot of time with both parents) would exhibit higher compliance than other cases. While the living arrangement was by no means an absolute predictor of compliance, it was apparent from the data that shared residence with the children increases the likelihood of compliance with child support. The formal arrangement in place is less important than the amount of actual contact between the paying parent and the children.

We have also seen that there is a tendency for the amount of time that paying parents spend with their children to diminish as time passes after separation, and that compliance rates also diminish. That relationship is not a simple one, of course. The parents often enter new relationships that can influence the paying parents’ views of their obligation to the children of the original family. Our data indicated that when the recipient parent entered a new relationship, compliance tended to diminish. We know from previous research that when the paying parent enters a new relationship, and especially when there are children in the new relationship, there are pressures to direct resources to that new family. In our sample, however, paying parents who had entered a new relationship were more likely to be paying their child support. Also, as the children grow older there is a natural tendency for both parents to spend less time with them, because they become increasingly independent. In that sense, reduced time spent by the paying parent cannot be understood necessarily as diminished interest, and other reasons would have to be considered to explain a reduction in financial support.

We made the presumption that the process of separation, and parents’ experiences with the legal system, might give rise to views about the fairness of the arrangements that were established, and might therefore influence compliance. We supposed that if the paying parent found the process fair and was reasonably satisfied with the arrangements for parenting and child support, a high rate of compliance would likely follow provided there was no major disruption to income. What we found was that while the process itself appears to be important in certain respects, the degree of satisfaction with parenting arrangements and with child support obligations do not appear to influence compliance.

Generally speaking, when the process involved the parents reaching an agreement between themselves, rather than requiring a court order for any of the parenting aspects of the separation, compliance was more likely. However, when the agreement was reached in the immediate post-separation period without the benefit of advice from a lawyer or mediator, and no subsequent action was taken through the courts, it often led to low compliance later on. A common circumstance described to us was that one parent (almost always the father) would leave the family home without the parents having discussed issues of parenting and child support. It was simply assumed that the recipient parent would keep the children, and that the paying parent would see the children at some unspecified times when work schedules and other considerations allowed. In many cases child support was not forthcoming for an extended period after separation. In some cases such a loose arrangement would actually be agreed to explicitly, while in other cases it was deemed to be an agreement because it was a de facto arrangement and no action had been taken by either party to demonstrate disagreement. The post-separation parenting arrangement and how that arrangement is arrived at appear to be important factors in many cases.

Level of satisfaction on the part of the paying parent does not appear to be a determining factor in compliance. In fact, we found widespread dissatisfaction among paying parents with the parenting arrangements, with child support and with their experiences with the legal system, but these views were just as likely (and in some cases more likely) to be held by people who paid support regularly as by people in default. Issues such as the amount of child support required and access to the children, often cited in research findings and especially in the popular media as problem areas that can influence compliance, did not appear in our sample in P.E.I. to be relevant in most cases to compliance, even though they were raised as areas of disagreement by some.

The theme of “I don’t mind supporting my child but...” revealed a widespread suspicion that the children do not derive the full benefit of the payments made. Either because paying parents do not trust their former partners to manage the money properly or have the children’s interests at heart, or because they underestimate the cost of raising children, the sense that they are supporting the ex-partner rather than the children seems to be a common perception and a source of reluctance to pay support, whether or not child support is ultimately paid.

The one area of disagreement between parents that did show a tendency to influence compliance was child-rearing. A number of paying parents expressed concern about the way their children were being raised by the recipient parent, and frustration at having to provide financial support to foster what they viewed as an unhealthy lifestyle. At times, moral or religious issues caused disagreement. In other cases, it had more to do with children not being properly looked after, or being left too frequently with friends or extended family “while she’s out partying or playing bingo.” In these cases the perspective of the recipient parents was of two types: either the paying parent was trying to control the lives of the recipient parent and the children and was angry that it was not possible to do so, or there was indeed disagreement over some aspects of how to raise the children (most frequently over the degree of discipline necessary), in many cases a dispute that had been going on while the parents were together as a family. Whatever the grounds and however valid, when child-rearing was a source of disagreement, compliance was frequently negatively affected.

Another presumption that we tested in the P.E.I. research was that the quality of the relationship between the parents, both before and after separation, influenced compliance. In relation to the pre-separation relationship, this might mean that a longstanding marriage or common-law relationship would be more likely to show compliance than a short-term or more casual relationship. For the post-separation relationship, the presumption was that in cases when the parents maintained a reasonably friendly relationship or at least were not hostile toward each other, compliance would tend to be higher than in cases when the relationship was very problematic.

Neither of these presumptions was borne out by the P.E.I. data. Relationships described as more casual, including ones in which the couple never resided together, were just as likely to be in compliance as those involving marriage or common-law relationships. Even some paying parents who had never seen their children and were no longer in touch with the recipient parent paid regularly and in full. Longstanding relationships showed results at both extremes: a greater likelihood of high compliance and a greater likelihood of low compliance.

In situations when the parents said they maintained some social contact after separation (in addition to contact regarding the children), paying parents were substantially less likely to comply with child support obligations than those in situations when the parents had little or no personal relationship with their former partner. General characterizations of the relationship (friendly, tense, hostile) appeared to have no predictive power for compliance.

Having examined a range of factors that have been reported in previous research to be related to child support compliance, we found that several types of factors appear, in P.E.I., to be particularly important. These are:

  • whether or not the children live with the paying parent on a regular, frequent basis;
  • whether or not the paying parent frequently spends time with the children;
  • the extent to which the paying parent is actively involved in the care of the children and in essential activities such as schooling, health matters and structured recreational activities;
  • whether parenting arrangements and child support were decided upon through an agreement between the parents or by a court order;
  • whether post-separation parenting arrangements resulted from a full discussion between the parents (with or without assistance from lawyers or mediators), or were simply the result of one parent leaving the family home with no explicit decisions being made;
  • whether or not the paying parent expressed disagreement about the way the children were being raised; and
  • the amount of time that had passed since the separation and the intervention of new relationships for either parent.

In the current study, these factors were discussed in the context of their possible interrelatedness, but it was not possible, because of the number of interviews we had to work with, to conduct a more complex analysis of the relative strength of some of the relationships, and how these factors may interact at any given time and as time passes. The goal of the compliance research project, of which the P.E.I. study was a first step, will be to explore these factors in more depth to see how they interrelate. To the extent possible, the research in other provinces will seek to identify some profiles of paying parents that incorporate their compliance records and sets of factors that appear to work together to influence compliance.

We have succeeded, as a first step, in supporting the general view that compliance with child support is often a decision rather than a question of ability to pay, and in highlighting some factors that appear to be most influential in the decision that paying parents make about whether or not to comply with their child support obligations.

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