The Survey of Child Support Awards: Analysis of Phase 2 Data Collected Through January 31, 2002

Executive Summary

On May 1, 1997, the Federal Child Support Guidelines came into effect with the amendments to the Divorce Act. (Amendments to the Income Tax Act concerning the tax treatment of child support payments took effect on the same date.) The amendments to the Divorce Act required the Minister of Justice to review the operation of the Guidelines and report to Parliament before May 1, 2002. This report has now been tabled in Parliament.1

The Federal-Provincial-Territorial Task Force on Implementation of the Child Support Reforms established a Research and Evaluation Subcommittee to help develop the comprehensive program of socio-legal research to support the review required by the 1997 Divorce Act amendments. Given the profound change in the way child support award amounts are calculated under the Guidelines, the Task Force and the Research Subcommittee members agreed that the first research priority was to collect information about support orders and variation orders made on or after May 1, 1997. This project is providing information about the implementation of the Guidelines, and provides for ongoing or periodic collection of information from the courts until the end of the initiative in March 2004.

This report summarizes the interim findings of Phase 2 of the project, which began in the fall of 1998. The report presents the results of the analysis of data collected from the fall of 1998 through January 31, 2002. Appendix A describes the processing of divorce cases involving child support orders, and documents issues related to that process at the different sites involved in the project. This report does not include any data from Quebec or Nunavut. 2

Highlights of the current findings of Phase 2 data are as follows.

Case Characteristics

  • A total of 33,240 cases of divorce or variations of previous orders in which children were present were analyzed for this report.  
  • The majority of orders (82 percent) were interim or final divorce orders and 15.9 percent were interim or final variation orders.  
  • The disposition of the majority of cases was by consent or uncontested (87.7 percent); 9.9 percent of cases were reported as contested.  
  • The majority of cases reported legal representation for at least one parent (85.3 percent); mothers had legal representation in 74.8 percent of cases, and fathers in 62.2 percent of cases. Both parents had legal representation in 51.2 percent of the total cases.
  • In 10.1 percent of the cases, a spousal support amount was also made, usually payable monthly.  
  • The majority of cases involved either one child (40.2 percent) or two children (44.7 percent).  
  • In 4,766 cases, there were an estimated 5,813 children over the age of majority. In 1,841 cases (5.5 percent of the total), all children were over the age of majority.  
  • In the majority of cases (79.3 percent), the mother had sole custody; the father had sole custody in 8.7 percent of cases. Shared custody (a child spends at least 40 percent of the time with each parent) and split custody (one or more children have primary residence with the mother and one or more children have primary residence with the father) were relatively infrequent at 6.2 percent and 5 percent, respectively.  
  • The most frequent type of access reported was “reasonable/liberal” (51.3 percent), followed by “scheduled/specified” (22.3 percent).

Child Support Awards and Paying Parent Incomes

  • Data were available on monthly child support award amounts for 26,239 cases, representing 78.9 percent of the total. For all cases, child support amounts ranged from $1 through $9,750 per month, with a median value of $427.  
  • In 53.2 percent of cases, the file specifically indicated that the child support guidelines were followed in determining the child support amount awarded. The second most frequently reported method for determining child support was a prior order or agreement that had dealt with child support (11.3 percent). In 28.8 percent of the cases, it was not possible to determine if the Guidelines were used.  
  • When total child support award amounts were examined in relation to the recorded amount from the Guidelines tables as provided in the order in sole custody cases, the majority of awards were either the same as (67.6 percent) or greater than (27.1 percent) the table amount. Only 5.3 percent of cases reported award amounts that were less than the table amounts.  
  • Annual income for the paying parent was specified in 76.7 percent of cases and ranged from $1 through $6,000,000, with a median income of $36,000. Annual income of receiving parents was specified in 44.3 percent of cases, and ranged from $39 through $2,675,940, with a median of $25,140.  
  • When the amounts of child support awards were examined in relation to the income of the paying parents, the results indicated a steady increase in child support awards as paying parents’ income increased.

Special or Extraordinary Expenses: Section 7

  • Of the 31.7 percent of cases that specified special expenses, the monthly amount of the paying parent’s share of special or extraordinary expenses ranged from $2 to $1,500, with a median amount of $113.
  • The most commonly awarded type of expense was child care and day-care (12 percent of total cases). This was followed by medical/dental insurance premiums at 10.6 percent, and extracurricular activities expenses at 10.1 percent.
  • There was a strong tendency for the proportion of sole custody cases awarded special or extraordinary expenses to increase as income level increased. At the lowest income level, only 13.2 percent of cases included special expenses in the amount; this proportion increased to 46 percent in the middle income range ($45,000–$59,999) and to 56.9 percent at the highest income level.
  • The dollar amount of special expenses stipulated consistently increased as payors’ income levels increased.

Undue Hardship: Section 10

  • Undue hardship applications were identified in only 0.6 percent of the total cases in the sample.  
  • Of the 174 cases in which undue hardship applications were brought by the paying parent, 114 resulted in a decrease of the Guidelines amount and 31 were denied. None of the cases with non-missing data resulted in an order amount higher than the Guidelines amount. The outcome of 29 applications was unknown or missing.  
  • Of the 12 undue hardship applications made by the receiving parent, one resulted in an increase of the Guidelines amount and four were denied. In two of these cases, an order was made for less than the Guidelines amount. The outcome was unknown in five cases.


  • In 48.6 percent of variation cases, the applicant was the receiving parent. The paying parent was the applicant in 43 percent of variation cases, and in 8.4 percent of cases, parents were cross-applicants. 
  • Of variation applications brought by the receiving parent, 66.7 percent resulted in an increase of the amount, 29.3 percent resulted in a decrease, 3.3 percent resulted in a termination order, and 0.7 percent were denied. 
  • Of variation applications brought by the paying parent, 14.1 percent resulted in an increase of the face value amount, 69.6 percent resulted in a decrease of the face value amount, 14.2 percent resulted in a termination order and 2.1 percent were denied.

Factors Related to Child Support Awards

  • There was a steady increase from 1998 (61.4 percent) through 2001 (72.3 percent) in the proportion of sole custody cases in which the child support award amount was equal to the table amount as stated in the order.
  • Overall, the proportion of sole custody cases that had child support awards lower than, equal to, or higher than the Guidelines table amounts were very similar for cases including spousal support awards and those not including spousal support. 
  • Contested cases had slightly higher median child support awards ($462) than did cases that proceeded by consent or were uncontested ($435). Special expenses were awarded in 31.6 percent of cases resolved by consent that were uncontested. In contested cases, 37.7 percent of cases had special expenses awarded. 
  • The median child support award amount was highest in cases in which sole custody was awarded to the mother ($450) and lowest in cases when the father had sole custody ($269). Median support amounts for shared and split custody fell between the two sole custody extremes: $400 for shared custody and $300 for split custody.

Comparison of Provincial/Territorial Data

  • The majority of orders in all jurisdictions were resolved by consent or were uncontested. Saskatchewan reported the highest percentage of contested cases (32.6 percent), followed by Newfoundland (23.4 percent) and the Northwest Territories (21.9 percent).  
  • The proportion of cases with legal representation for the mother was highest in Manitoba (92 percent) and Saskatchewan (88.6 percent), and was lowest in Ontario (56 percent) and Newfoundland (51.2 percent). Legal representation for the father was highest in the Northwest Territories (74.7 percent) and Manitoba (74.4 percent), and lowest in Prince Edward Island (40.4 percent) and Newfoundland (37.4 percent).  
  • The proportion of cases reporting sole custody to the mother ranged from 80.4 percent in Newfoundland to 70.3 percent in the Yukon. Sole custody awarded to the father varied from 10 percent in New Brunswick to 2.9 percent in Newfoundland. The proportion of cases reporting shared custody arrangements was highest in the Yukon (10.5 percent) and lowest in Manitoba (1.8 percent). Split custody was reported relatively infrequently, ranging from 6.7 percent of cases in New Brunswick to 3.4 percent of cases in British Columbia.
  • The proportion of cases in which special or extraordinary expenses were awarded ranged from a high of 40 percent in Alberta and 30.4 percent in Ontario to 12.3 percent in the Northwest Territories and 11.4 percent in Newfoundland.  
  • Median monthly amounts for special or extraordinary expenses ranged from a high of $184 in Ontario and $143 in Nova Scotia to $91 in Manitoba and $85 in Prince Edward Island.

  • 1 Department of Justice Canada. (2002). Children Come First: A Report to Parliament Reviewing the Provisions and Operation of the Federal Child Support Guidelines. Ottawa: Department of Justice Canada.

  • 2 Quebec’s data was collected separately. See Madame Linda Goupil, Rapport du Comité de suivi du modèle québécois de fixation des pensions alimentaires pour enfants, Québec, ministre de la Justice, procureure générale, ministre responsable de la Condition féminine et de l’application des lois professionnelles, mars 2000.

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