Custody and access to children are complex issues requiring consideration of which circumstances would best benefit the interests of the child. Often, one or both parents may desire a change in custody or access. This can be accommodated so long as they can prove that a material change in circumstances has occurred since the last order was made.

A change can be said to be “material” if the situation presently in force would have resulted in a different order originally being made. Requests for variation are resolved entirely based on what will benefit the child, rather than what either of the parents want (Gordon v. Goertz, 1996 CanLII 191 (SCC)).

Variation is permitted under section 17 of the Divorce Act, which further stipulates that a parent’s newly developed terminal illness or critical condition qualifies as a change of circumstance. A child’s increased age and expressed wishes to spend less time with a parent can also constitute a material change ( M. (S.M.) v. H. (J.P.), 2016 BCCA 284). Intensified and more frequent conflict, if egregious enough, can also serve as a material change (Friedlander v. Claman, 2016 BCCA 434).

Section 47 of the Family Law Act also gives authority for a court to change an order of custody or access. Section 216 of the Family Law Act allows the court to address interim orders (K. (B.) v. B. (J.), 2015 BCSC 1481). Again, the parent desiring the order’s variation must prove a material change in circumstances. The change cannot be one that was contemplated and addressed in the prior order (Gordon v. Goertz, 1996 CanLII 191 (SCC)), such as a foreseen adjustment to a child’s extra-curricular soccer schedule. Material change can be shown through, for example, a parent becoming mentally ill, a child desiring to have less or more time with a parent, or a parent successfully completing counseling and improving their ability to be a guardian.

Although less frequently invoked, the court also has jurisdiction to change an interim order even if there has neither been a change in circumstances or new evidence. The court may only do so if a change would be in the best interests of the child (R. (R.) v. L. (S.), 2016 BCSC 1230. If you have concerns about your family matters, please contact Heath Law LLP to book a consultation.

Through the Notice to Mediate (Family) Regulation, BC Reg 296/2007, a party to a family law proceeding may require the other spouse to participate in mediation with them. Mediation, if successful, can have many benefits including a shorter timeline, decreased cost, and lower conflict. It’s also much less formal than court, and private.

A notice to mediate can be served on the other party at any point that is 90 days’ time after the first response to the family claim is filed, and 90 days’ time before the date of the trial. The parties must agree on which mediator to select, and if they cannot, any party may apply to a roster organization that maintains a list of experienced mediators who would be sufficient. The roster organization will provide a list of options, and the Regulation then requires parties to eliminate certain mediators to which they object. The roster organization will make the final call on who the mediator will be, taking into account the parties’ indicated preferences, the mediator’s qualifications and fee, and scheduling availability.

The mediator is required to hold separate pre-mediation appointments with each party, where they’ll screen for potential power imbalance or abuse. If this appointment leads the mediator to believe that the process would be inappropriate or unproductive, they can conclude the mediation at that point and the parties will need to go through with litigation. Parties are not obligated to settle all or any of their issues at mediation but must attend and participate in good faith. Mediation requires parties to be reasonable, relatively calm, and open to negotiation. Considering how emotionally charged separation is for many individuals, mediation certainly isn’t the answer for everyone, but it may be worth an attempt.

 

Both the Divorce Act and the Family Law Act give authority to change the amount of spousal support that must be paid, and although worded differently, both acts require a change in circumstances before the variation is warranted. It’s important to bring the variation application under the Act which the support order was originally made under; the Family Law Act cannot be invoked to change a support order made under the Divorce Act (Malbon v. Malbon, 2017 BCCA 427), and vice versa.

The factors for the court to consider when asked to change spousal support are set out in section 17 (4.1) of the Divorce Act and Section 167 of the Family Law Act. In case law, a substantial change of circumstances has been constituted by multiple scenarios including:

• A change in income;
• A change in expenses;
• Retirement;
• Re-partnering; and
• A change of residence for the child.

If parties presume the payor’s income will somewhat fluctuate, but instead it increases significantly, the situation will likely meet the requirement of a substantial change in circumstances (Jennens v. Jennens, 2020 BCCA 59). Purposeful, voluntary changes made to one’s life, such as taking a larger mortgage for a shorter amortization, will not lead to a change of support (Poon v. Poon, 2005 BCCA 60).

A foundational principle of the spousal support obligation is that payor’s must compensate their spouses when that spouse’s contributions to the family allowed the payor to obtain the high income they later benefit from (Judd v. Judd, 2010 BCSC 153).

Voluntary retirement is typically more carefully analyzed by the courts than forced retirement. When considering if retirement justifies changing support obligations, the courts will look at age, background, employment opportunities, and the objectives of the support order (Brouwer v. Brouwer, 2019 BCSC 274). In Cramer v. Cramer, 2000 BCCA 272, the payor was forced to retire due to a health condition, the estate had been split equally originally, and the payee spouse had failed to follow through with educational plans that would have led to financial self-sufficiency. The payor’s retirement constituted a change in circumstances and the spousal support was terminated entirely.

Remarriage or re-partnering alone is not sufficient to trigger a material change in circumstances (Morigeau v. Moorey, 2013 BCSC 1923). But when combined with other factors such as an increase in the payee’s workplace earnings, the requirement can be met (Clarke v. Clarke, 2014 BCSC 824). A change in the children’s residence, meaning an increase in expenses for the parent who is primarily caring for them, can constitute a change in circumstances sufficient to vary spousal support (Aspe v. Aspe, 2010 BCCA 508). . If you’d like assistance with resolving any family matters, please contact Heath Law LLP to book a consultation.

While the decisions of children’s parents will be given deference by the courts, grandparents have the right to make applications for access to their grandchildren. Section 59 of the Family Law Act authorizes the court to grant contact with the child to a person who is not a guardian, such as a grandparent. The court will make its decision based on what is in the best interests of the child.

Factors that may contribute to the court ordering contact between grandchild and grandparent include a strong existing relationship between the parties, the grandparents’ home offering stability and emotional wellbeing, and the child having their physiological needs met, such as healthy food being available. Factors that negate the court ordering contact include safety concerns, scheduling or transport concerns, or the child being exposed to family conflict or violence.

It’s important to note that grandparents are not entitled to access to the grandchild as a right. In Branconnier v. Branconnier, 2006 BCSC 2020, the twin boys’ mother reduced the time they were spending with their grandparents. The mother did so because the grandparents were spoiling the children with excessive sugary treats and gifts, and failing to provide a structured environment. The court held that the mother’s decision was reasonable and put the best interests of the children paramount.

Addressing family concerns and parenting time can be emotionally draining.

Heath Law LLP would be pleased to assist with your needs.

In certain circumstances, a party required to pay child support may need to claim undue hardship under section 10 of the Federal Child Support Guidelines (the “Guidelines”).This means that the party would be caused to suffer unduly if made to pay the full amount of support originally required. If the party shows the court why they’re unable to pay the amount of support determined under the Guidelines, the court may reduce the value they’re obligated to pay.

Circumstances that may cause a party to suffer undue hardship include:
• The spouse has responsibility for an unusually high level of debt reasonably incurred to support the spouses and their children prior to the separation or to earn a living;
• The spouse has unusually high expenses in relation to exercising parenting time with a child; or
• The spouse has a legal duty to support any person who is unable to obtain the necessities of life due to an illness or disability.

The party claiming undue hardship must also prove that they have a lower standard of living than their ex-spouse. It’s typically very difficult to prove undue hardship because it’s viewed as unfair for one spouse to pay less than the Guideline requirement of support.

In Kelly v. Kelly, 2011 BCCA 173, the judge made it clear that future courts must very carefully exercise their discretion to order a different amount of support (para. 35). The objectives of the Guidelines should not be circumvented; predictability and consistency in support obligations are key components of our family justice system.

If you have any questions, please call Heath Law LLP to book a consultation.

Under section 224 of the Family Law Act, the courts have power to require parties attend counselling. This can be in the form of family dispute resolution or individual counselling. The courts can even order a child attend counselling without their guardians’ consent. This broad power of the court must be exercised in a manner that best respects the interests of the child. Counselling for children can be extremely beneficial, especially in situations of high family conflict or violence. Recognizing this, the Family Law Act also authorizes the courts to allocate the cost of counselling or other related services between the litigation parties, or to require only one party pay.

Particularly for young children who are more vulnerable to potential alienation from a parent, the court may order counselling. In C.H.T. v. P.V.L., 2015 BCSC 419, two children, aged 10 and 13, were estranged from their father. The court held that the objective should be that the children repair and reintegrate their relationship with their father, and that both parents must also follow the counsellor’s recommendations.

The age of the children and their expressed wishes will be taken into account when the court makes a decision regarding ordering counselling. In M.Y.T.C. v. L.H.N., 2018 BCSC 1174, the parties’ 15-year-old son was estranged from his mother. The son had clearly expressed that he did not want to go to counselling, and would meet any efforts to force him to go with resistance. The court held that ordering him into counselling would only further damage the relationship with his mother.

We understand how challenging it can be to navigate emotionally charged family matters. Our lawyers strive to resolve issues with minimal toll to clients.

If you have any questions, please call Heath Law LLP to book a consultation.

 

In Leitch v. Novac (2020 ONCA 257) the Ontario Court of Appeal held that “invisible litigants” cannot impede family law proceedings with impunity. Writing for the Court, Houringan J. described these invisible litigants as the parties’ extended relatives who insert themselves into family law proceedings far beyond the permissible grounds of providing emotional support. Rather, invisible litigants exacerbate litigation by encouraging the parties to advance needlessly adversarial positions and by helping to shield a party’s income and assets from the courts.

The Parties
The parties in this case were married for 17 years. They have teenage twin daughters. The Applicant-appellant (“Leitch”) is a law professor and mother of the children. The respondents are the children’s father (“Novac”), his casino management company (“Sonco”), members of the Novac family, two family trusts, and directors of Sonco.

Background
This case arose when Leitch filed for divorce and corollary relief from Novac. She subsequently amended her pleadings to include a claim of conspiracy against the above-noted respondents. On application by the non-family respondents, Justice Cory Gilmore of Ontario’s Superior Court held that Leitch’s conspiracy claim was appropriate for partial summary judgement.

Summary Judgement
In the summary judgment proceeding, Leitch argued that the respondents conspired to withhold business income from Novac until his divorce proceedings were completed. This allegation principally arose with regards to a buy-out of Sonco’s five-year management agreement with an Alberta Casino. Under that agreement, Novac was to receive 40% of the contract price as management fees. Consequently, Novac was entitled to 40% of Sonco’s $5.75 million buy-out as income (i.e. $2.3 million). Instead, the respondents diverted this income away from Novac by arranging a loan between Novac and his father. Memos and emails between Sonco’s Chief Financial Officer, Novac, and Sonco’s accountant suggested that this loan was structured with the purpose of shielding Novac’s share of the buy-out proceeds from Leitch’s corollary support claims.

In her decision, Justice Gilmore, as the motion judge, dismissed Leitch’s conspiracy claim on two grounds. First, she found that Leitch’s evidence failed to prove that Novac had the requisite knowledge to have committed the tort. Furthermore, the summary judgment appears to have been decided, in part, because no funds were actually transferred between the defendants.
Second, Judge Gilmore dismissed the claim on policy grounds. She held that the circumstances were analogous to Frame v. Smith, 1987 CanLII 74 (SCC), wherein the Supreme Court of Canada restricted conspiracy claims with regards to custody and child support. If conspiracy claims were not so restricted, Judge Gilmore reasoned that they would “become the new norm” in any family law case where a “payor spouse, in conjunction with a new spouse/relative/business partner, did not fully disclose income, unreasonably deducted expenses, or received income in the form of cash or goods” (para. 41). In effect, she surmised that conspiracy claims would become a form of punitive damages” (ibid.). Instead, she held that the existing legislation and its associated guidelines constitute a complete code from which Leitch could have sought an imputation of income against the father.

In her summary judgment, Justice Gilmore dismissed Leitch’s conspiracy claim and awarded a total of $1.2 million in costs against her for the proceedings.

The Appeal
The Court of Appeal found that Justice Gilmore made palpable and overriding errors of fact and law. Taken in turn, she misunderstood critical email evidence relating to the alleged conspiracy that was sent between Sonco’s Chief Financial Officer, accountant, and Novac. Next, the Court of Appeal also suggested that Justice Gilmore may have erred in law by accepting the argument that the tort of conspiracy requires an actual transaction, when, in fact, a temporary withholding of funds to impede another party’s entitlement can constitute an “act in furtherance to a conspiracy” (para 51).

On the public policy basis for dismissing Leitch’s claim, the Court of Appeal rejected Justice Gilmore’s reasoning because limiting the tort of conspiracy from family law proceedings would enable invisible litigants to interlope in court proceedings with impunity. While Justice Gilmore was correct in holding that an imputation of income claim would enable a claimant to get access to otherwise withheld funds, this remedy does not address the subsequent enforcement problem that arises when a payor has made themselves creditor-proof by conspiring with invisible litigants (para. 47).

Finally, the Court of Appeal made two further procedural comments. First, it held that this case should not have been bifurcated because the factual basis for Leitch’s conspiracy and support claims were indistinguishable. Contrary to the principle established in Hryniak v. Mauldin, 2014 SCC 7, this created the “substantial risk of inconsistent outcomes” between the summary judgement and the subsequent trial. Second, the Court of Appeal found the motion judge’s costs award “troubling.” Citing Yaiguaje v. Chevron Corporation, 2017 ONCA 827, the Court of Appeal reaffirmed the courts’ obligation to ensure that protection orders, such as security for costs, are not misused as litigation tactics. In this case, the motion judge should have considered the order holistically, assessing whether the overriding interests of justice are served by the order sought. In other words, the motion judge’s costs awards were excessive because they would have impeded Leitch’s ability to proceed with the subsequent trial.

Due to Justice Gilmore’s errors of fact and law, the Ontario Court of Appeal remitted this case back to the Superior Court for a re-determination at trial. The $1.3 million dollars in costs were set aside, and Leitch was awarded costs on the appeal.

For our readers, the principle provided by Leitch v. Novac is that family members acting as invisible litigants are not immune from liability.

If your child’s co-parent has claimed that they cannot afford to pay their child support obligations, what are your options? Under these circumstances, it is important to remember that child support is the right of the child, not the receiving parent. This means that parents cannot negotiate a lower monthly rate than the minimums prescribed by the Federal Child Support Guidelines. Any such agreement would be considered invalid by the courts.  Instead, there are two primary avenues for enforcing a child support order.

First, the recipient parent’s best avenue to enforce a support order is to register their separation agreement or court order with the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program (FMEP). This is a public organization that assists parents with enforcing both child and spousal support orders. The FMEP can enforce the orders by “attaching” it to the debtor’s income, including wages, tax returns, rental revenues, etcetera. The organization’s Director may also seek a court order to direct the payment of security for future support obligations from larger sources of funds, e.g. an inheritance. If the debtor parent refuses to pay, the FMEP Director may, among other remedies, report them to the credit bureau, seek a seize-and-sell court order, or instruct ICBC to refuse their license and vehicle registration issuance or renewal.

To enroll in the FMEP, you must submit an application which provides details about the paying parent and a copy of your support agreement or court order. The application can be found here. Upon completion, the EMEP will provide a Notice of Enrollment to the paying parent. The key advantage of the FMEP is that it is free. The disadvantage is that the receiving parent cannot undertake any enforcement proceedings themselves while they are registered in the program.

The recipient parent’s second enforcement avenue is to privately seek court enforcement remedies under section 230 of the Family Law Act. Specifically, they may request that the debtor parent pay security for future support obligations, plus legal expenses, up to $5,000 dollars in damages for the delayed payments, and a fine of up to $5,000.  If the debtor further fails to comply with these payments, the court may make an order for their imprisonment for up to 30 days. Importantly, this imprisonment will not discharge the debtor’s support obligations; it is simply an enforcement mechanism. Of course, this is a draconian option that the courts will rarely apply.

For debtor parents experiencing genuine financial difficulty that is impeding their ability to meet their support obligations, they may respond to enforcement action by applying to the courts for a variation order under section 152 of the Family Law Act or section 17 of the Divorce Act. On proof of a material change that renders the original order inappropriate, the court may vary the obligation amount, suspend enforcement proceedings, or make an order it deems otherwise appropriate.

For more information regard child support and their enforcement, please contract our office at (250) 753-2202.

COVID-19 and Parenting Time: What are your rights for parenting time during a pandemic?

Two recent cases from the Courts of British Columbia have discussed COVID-19’s effects on a parent’s right to parenting time.

In N.J.B v S.F., 2020 BCPC 53 (April 1, 2020) a father began denying the mother parenting time.  His justification for doing so was based on the changed landscape arising from the COVID-19 crisis and the health and safety issues arising from it. More specifically, the father asserted that the mother is unlikely to be able to comply with social and physical distancing measures and other protocols currently recommended by public health authorities.

The facts and procedural history are as follows:

The parents separated in October 2018.

After the parents separated the mother’s parents submitted a report to the Ministry of Children and Family Development (the “MCFD”) regarding the mother being unable to care for the child due to the mother’s mental health, parenting skills, and substance abuse.  This report resulted in the MCFD and the father agreeing not to permit the mother to have any unsupervised access to the child.

Over the next few months, the mother and father attended multiple Family Case Conferences, the first being on February 14, 2019, which made orders allowing for the mother to have supervised parenting time.

On March 24, 2020, the father’s lawyer sent a letter to the mother’s lawyer stating that due to concerns related to COVID-19, the mother would not be permitted to exercise her parenting time.  The father had two reason for refusing the mother parenting time.  First, given the mother’s history of mental health challenges, which appear to result in her fabricating ideas and experiencing delusions, the present COVID-19 crisis is likely to impact her mental health further, and cause her to behave in a manner that will pose a risk to the child.  Second, there are seven people who live in the mother’s home.  The father claimed that the large number of people residing in the mother’s home will increase the child’s risk of contracting the virus.

The Courts Decision:

The Court ordered compliance with the parenting order. The father was unable to point to any concrete concerns about the mother and her family’s lack of compliance with COVID-19 protocols.  His concern appears to be based on the mother’s historical, and likely ongoing, challenges with her mental health which has sometimes manifested in paranoid or conspiratorial ideas.  The court accepted that the mother’s variable mental health gives rise to concern, but that concern has been addressed by the fact that all of her parenting is supervised. The court did not find concerns in relation to the mother are any greater under COVID-19 than they were before COVID-19, and as such, ordered compliance with the parenting order.

In another case

In SR v MG, 2020 BCPC 57 (April 7, 2020) a father was denying a mother her agreed to parenting time.  The father’s reason for denying parenting time was due to the mother being a licenced practical nurse.  He believed that her exposure as a nurse to the COVID-19 virus would create undue risk for their child.

In considering a multitude of factors, the Court found the mother to be entitled to her parenting time despite the father’s concerns.  While there was some risk that the mother would catch the virus, it was appropriately mitigated by the mother abiding by the precautions placed upon all front-line workers.

The Court noted that if the child was particularly vulnerable, it would not expose the child to even the slightest risk.

Conclusion from the two cases:

Using COVID-19 as a rationale for not complying with parenting time orders is not prima facie accepted by the Courts.  The parent withholding the child from the other has to supply the Court with concrete evidence which shows that the child is either particularly more vulnerable to COVID-19 or the other parent has created undue risk for the child by disregarding COVID-19 protocols.

 

If you think you may have cause to deny a parenting order due to safety concerns during Covid-19, or if your parenting time is being denied and you would like to discuss your options, call Heath Law LLP or email us.

Child Support Obligations Even if not Married?

Is there potential for child support obligations even if you are not the child’s biological parent.  Yes. Similarly, can there be child support obligations even if you are not living with the child? Yes.

For a stepparent to have support obligations the following must be true:

  1. You must be considered a stepparent under the Family Law Act (FLA);
  2. The stepparent contributed to the support of the child for at least one year; and
  3. A proceeding for an order under this Part, against the stepparent, is started within one year after the date the stepparent last contributed to the support of the child.

 

  1. Being a Stepparent

A stepparent under the FLA means a person who is a spouse of the child’s parent and lived with the child’s parent and the child during the child’s life. Being a stepparent is therefore incumbent on the definition of “spouse” as well as “lived with”.

Spouse

A spouse under the FLA is a person who has lived with another person in a marriage-like relationship, and has done so for a continuous period of at least 2 years. There is no checkbox list to determine when there is a marriage like relationship. But here are some indicia:

  • Whether the parties lived in the same residence and, if so, what were the sleeping arrangements in the shared residence;
  • Whether the parties prepared and ate their meals together;
  • Whether the parties performed domestic chores, tasks and services together;
  • Whether the parties had sexual relations, maintained an attitude of fidelity, and communicated on a personal level with one another;
  • Whether the parties bought each other gifts and celebrated special occasions together;
  • Whether the parties shared financial arrangements and supported each other financially;
  • Whether the parties conducted themselves socially and in public as a married couple.

The presence or absence of any one of these factors is not determinative of a marriage-like relationship. The relationship must be taken in its entirety to determine whether a marriage-like relationship exists.

Lived With

As a matter of law, it is well established that parties can maintain two residences and still be in a marriage-like relationship: W. (S.L.M.) v. W. (M.R.G.), 2016 BCSC 272. “Lived with” can involve parties living under different roofs for extended periods of time.  Staying over several times per week could be found to be “cohabitation”.

  1. Contributed to the Child for at Least One Year

Expenditures by the stepparent on behalf of the stepchild that are trivial in nature or are sporadic or in the character of gestures of occasional generosity or kindness may not qualify as contributions that attract a duty to support: McConnell v. McConnell, 2007 BCSC 748 (B.C. S.C.) and D. (D.C.) v. C. (R.J.P.) 2014 BCSC 2420. The support contributions must be of a more significant nature. Examples from the case law include contributions made by the stepparent to shelter, food or vacations: Z. (O.) v. Z. (M.), 2016 BCPC 416.

Conclusion

It is very important to know your legal rights and obligations when you enter into a relationship with another person, especially when that other person has a child from a previous relationship. If you are unaware of your legal position in relation to the child, you may end up subject to unwanted support obligations.

If you are concerned about potential child support obligations or if you have any other family law concerns please contact Heath Law LLP 250-753-2202.