A CBC investigation yesterday uncovered that 'deadbeat parents' in Canada collectively owe more than $3.7B in support. The story clearly resonated with Canadians; by day's end, the story had 2,229 reader comments.
As a divorce lawyer for 20 years, it struck me as I scanned through some of the reader comments that people's interpretations aside, there is a lack of knowledge of how court-ordered support payments work. And how the whole support process works, for that matter.
Here are three things to think about and two actions that you can take which should help Canadians understand spousal and child support a bit better, help you understand why the divorce support payments situation is such a mess, and help explain why it is not even worse.
1) FRO lacks electronic technology (a portal)
In Ontario, for example, the Family Responsibility Office (FRO) is responsible for both collecting money from payers and distributing it to support recipients and children. This is for court-ordered support payments. There are many couples who divorce, where both parents do the right thing, and monies owing for child support are given regularly to the other spouse without the FRO's involvement.
For court-ordered support payments, the FRO has tremendous power to take away driver's licenses, passports, gun licences and even incarcerate non-payers.
What the FRO lacks are people and technology, which are inter-related and cause huge problems for Ontario residents.
When my family law clients call the FRO, they are routinely on hold for two hours. Why? How many more problems are created because Ontarians don't have two hours to be on hold with the FRO?
Second point: Lack of staff is made worse by a lack of technology at the FRO. Why is there not, in 2014, an online system to report changes back to the FRO? Why do we have an Ontario government that doesn't have the ability to deal with electronic technology?
Why can't changes regarding support payments be done through Service Ontario, which works very well? This would be a relatively simple and elegant fix.
2) Support payers who work for cash or are self-employed cause a good deal of the problems at the FRO.
If the payer has no employer from whom payments can be garnisheed, he (usually, but not always) is obligated to send payments to the FRO. This is the situation most likely to cause problems, as the payer forgets or intentionally neglects to make payments, and who manipulates income information in hopes that a lower declared income will result in reduced payments.
If the payer has a regular, steady job and is easy to find by the FRO, everything tends to work fine. The FRO has trouble finding payers who job-hop or are struggling financially (and therefore may change jobs frequently).
3) The psychology of deadbeat parents is peculiar.
The psychology of deadbeats is not that they are depriving their own children of money and a better lifestyle (which is what they ought to think), but that the money is going to their ex-spouse. And they have a strong desire to get back at the ex-spouse. So, it's about punishment and vindication of the ex, rather than an improved lifestyle for the children.
Or, the payer doesn't think the recipient needs the money, even if it was court-ordered.
As well, some ex-spouses want the money accounted for. They want proof in the form of receipts so they know the money was really spent on their children. This is not is not part of the Family Law system in Ontario. If we have to account for every nickel, we will never get anything done.
What are the next steps you might take?
First, if you are considering divorce, take the time to inform yourself about your rights and obligations. You can't have all rights and no obligations. Visit www.separation.ca or www.FamilyLawHelp.ca. Throughout your separation process, remember to put your children first. I always tell clients that the fees they pay my firm would be better used for their own children's education.
Second, ask your politicians for help. Ask them to tell you what they are doing to improve the divorce process. It is a simple question. Politicians work for you, so if the Family Law system is not working for you, speak up loudly.
The Divorce Act is federal, so the Members of Parliament in the House of Commons are the politicians who can make the biggest changes.
The Children's Law Reform Act and the Family Law Act are provincial and govern non-married parties with children, with MPPs responsible for both.
Third, use media and social media to voice your displeasure. Your local newspaper, and radio and television stations are your friends. They can shine a spotlight on the problems, but they cannot fix them. The fixing must be done by politicians.