Retroactive Increase in Child Support

The Alberta Court of Appeal has issued a landmark opinion that will change the complexion of child support adjustment. Here’s the article on the decision from the National Post.

The Court of Appeal ruled that when a child support payer’s income goes up, his or her obligation to pay child support normally kicks in at that time, not months or years later when the child support recipient files for a modification. The ruling means that many child support payers may owe large arrearages retroactively.

The Court rejected a previous requirement that this retroactive relief be granted only in “extraordinary circumstances.” The Court said:

It is inconsistent with the [child support] guidelines, their underlying rationale, and the equality rights of children [under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child] to require that there be exceptional circumstances before awarding retroactive support for the period pre-dating the filing of a court application or claim for support.

I’m ambivalent about this trend. A piece of me says “Go get’em” to collect child support from rich parents (mostly fathers) who are not supporting their children. Another piece of me, however, fears that this will make for more hopeless fathers. I can already observe how easily a father can become discouraged when he gets behind in child support. If you tell him now, as Alberta appears ready to do, that he starts the process several thousands of dollars in arrears, I fear that litigation will seem less fair and more like a crap shoot.

Governments that want to hold parents responsible for child support have another, less disruptive option. They can provide adequate staffing to child services agencies so those agencies can provide prompt, courteous, effective services to separated parents. If services were generally available and structured to be parent-friendly, both payers and recipients would be more likely to call on them — payers when their income goes down and they need child support reduced and recipients when they need an increase or have trouble collecting court-ordered support. Governments historically have cheated child services agencies because of budget constraints. Why not collect 1/4 of 1% of all child support paid to finance first class child services? Parents could easily afford it and would come to welcome the smoother, faster, and more humane services that would result.