In Canada, the law requires parents to support their children financially, especially until they reach the age of majority. Some parents may resent this notion if they have a poor relationship with the child, or if the child refuses to see them, especially when it comes to adult children.
What are a parent’s obligations when it comes to a child over 18 who refuses contact with the support-paying parent? Is there an onus on the child to “make nice” with their parent if they wish to continue to be entitled to child support? An Ontario case recently considered when a child has “terminated the relationship” with their parent in the context of child support. The case shows that there is a high bar for a paying parent to demonstrate they should no longer be expected to pay child support.
A parent’s financial obligation to their child does not end when the child is legally an adult. In some cases, a child may not have the ability to support themselves financially due to illness, or a physical or mental disability. In those cases, child support may continue indefinitely. In other cases, a child who enrolls in post-secondary education may require ongoing support while they complete their studies. Support for a full-time student would usually continue until school is completed, or until the child reaches the age of 22. It is possible for support to be enforced beyond the age of 22 if the child is still a full-time student.
It should be noted that full-time student status does not, on its own, create an automatic right to support. In one case we previously wrote about, an Alberta court found that a 22-year-old woman was no longer considered to be a “child of the marriage” despite the fact that she was enrolled in school full-time. The judge pointed out that the child had been living independently prior to enrolling in school, and that she had sufficient funds to pay her own expenses. Therefore, her father was not obligated to continue support.
What is the effect of an estranged relationship when it has been demonstrated that a parent is still required to support a child who is over 18 while they pursue higher education? If that child refuses contact with the paying parent, does the parent still have to continue support?
It is possible for a parent to seek an end to child support payments if they can establish that the child has unilaterally terminated their relationship without a valid cause. There is no specific test for the termination of a relationship, but the case law across Canada has demonstrated that the onus on the parent is quite high. There have been many cases where parents have been required to continue contributing to a child’s post-secondary education pursuits even when the child is estranged from the parent.
In a 2012 National Post article, one Ontario family lawyer was quoted as saying that courts will generally refuse to terminate support unless the child was “unilateral and egregious” in their decision to refuse contact with the paying parent. This was attributed to the fact that courts tend to view children of divorce or separation as being disadvantaged, even into adulthood. The article was discussing an Ontario case in which the judge acknowledged that the paying father was “just a wallet” to his adult daughter, however, he was still required to pay support towards her education. Notably, the court, in this case, attributed blame for the rift in the relationship to both parents, which impacted the decision to continue the support obligation.
In contrast, a British Columbia court found that a daughter had effectively terminated her relationship with her mother and that the child’s “unilateral decision to completely exclude her mother from her life is not explained or justified”. The daughter had refused all contact with her mother and refused to communicate with her about her education, grades, or future plans. In this case, the mother was permitted to terminate support for her daughter.
Just last month, another Ontario decision reiterated a father’s obligation to pay ongoing support for an adult daughter who had refused contact with him. The father claimed that the daughter had made a unilateral decision to cease contact with him, and refused to share her plans with respect to her post-secondary education with him. The court, in refusing to terminate support outright, said:
There is nothing in the Divorce Act or the cases decided pursuant to the Act that says a child must get along with a parent in order to be entitled to support except in extreme situations.
Ultimately, the father was ordered to continue support through the summer and ordered the mother to prepare a detailed financial and education plan for the 2021/22 academic year and present it for the father’s consideration. The parents would be required to discuss and consider ongoing support at that point, the parties were to once again seek direction from the court.
Despite some courts finding in favour of a parent seeking to end their financial obligations after an estrangement, the case law would indicate that this continues to be the less likely outcome. In general, courts are inclined to find in favour of a child, even when the child is the party refusing contact. This could be because in many cases, it is very difficult to get a full and accurate picture of all the circumstances leading to the child’s decision. Family dynamics are complicated, especially after a divorce or separation, and it can be a challenge to confidently attribute the fault for estrangement to just one party.
Child support awards can be complex, particularly when dealing with adult children who may or may not continue to be financially dependent on their parents. The team at Mincher Koeman is dedicated to helping guide you through your family law issues no matter how complex they may be. Our exclusive focus on family law helps our clients navigate the emotional and financial challenges a family law matter can present. If you have a family law issue that you need assistance with, please contact us online or phone at (403) 901-3000 to talk with one of our lawyers today.
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