The Federal Child Support Guidelines: Step-by-Step

Before you start

The Divorce Act (Act) and the Federal Child Support Guidelines (Federal Guidelines) change as of March 1, 2021. This guide reflects these changes. The biggest difference is that the Act and the Federal Guidelines no longer use the terms “custody” and “access”. They now use “parenting“ terminology (such as “parenting time“) to describe where the children will live and how decisions about them will be made. If your order refers to “custody” or “access,” please read the glossary at the end of this guide to help you understand the changes. Please note that there are no changes to the child support rules to calculate the amount of child support.

You can find many of the documents referred to in this guide on the Department of Justice Canada’s Family Law webpages.

Going through a separation or divorce can be very difficult, both emotionally and financially. You may feel overwhelmed about some of the decisions that you may need to make, like how you will divide your house and shared possessions, whether spousal support is needed, where your children will live, or how much financial support is needed for your children.

You may also be feeling anxious or frustrated about your financial situation. Money you once shared as a couple must now be used to cover the expenses of two households. Instead of sharing household expenses, you may each have to pay for your own housing, utilities (like telephone and electricity), groceries, transportation and other necessities of life. This may increase concerns about how you will take care of your children financially.

You may feel angry or sad about the breakup of your relationship. Working together to make practical arrangements that are in the best interests of your children may seem difficult at this point.

Knowing about your rights and responsibilities can help you make good decisions about your family. It can also help you work together to make those decisions. Your family’s situation may have changed, but you are still parents and your children still need your love and support.

Your children have a legal right to financial support from both parents and you both have a legal responsibility to provide this support. Those rights and responsibilities do not end with divorce or separation. The goal of this guide is to help you make child support decisions that will help ensure that your children continue to benefit from financial support from both of you after your separation or divorce.

When you are making decisions about how to take care of your children after your separation or divorce, it is important to keep their best interests in mind. The changes taking place in your family are confusing and stressful for them too. It is important that your children not get caught in the middle. You need to protect them as best you can from any financial hardship that may result from a separation or divorce.

If you’re worried about safety

If you or your children have been abused or feel unsafe around the other parent, you need to put safety first and should seek help. Children who are abused can have long-term physical or mental health problems. This is also true for children who see or hear abuse between other family members. Children are often far more aware of one parent abusing the other than their parents realize.

If you’re concerned about your safety or your children’s safety, you may want to read Section 6 in Making Plans: A guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce. Making Plans will also refer you to other helpful resources.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger,
call 9-1-1 or your local police.

About this guide

This guide has general information, instructions and worksheets, as well as other tools to help you make decisions about child support when you separate or divorce.

In this guide:

“you”
generally means both you and the other parent
“child support”
means money that one of you may have to pay to the other to continue supporting your children financially following your separation or divorce
“paying parent”
means the parent who pays support
“receiving parent”
means the one who receives support

The Divorce Act is the federal law that sets out the rules for legally ending a marriage.

The guide is based on the Divorce Act. More specifically, it is based on the Federal Child Support Guidelines (Federal Guidelines), which are regulations under the Divorce Act.

Parenting time is the time that children spend in the care of one of their parents, whether or not the child is physically with the parent (for example, it includes time when children are attending school).

The guide uses parenting language such as parenting time. Your order or agreement may include terms such as “custody” and “access,” especially if it was made before March 1, 2021. You may want to read the glossary in this guide to help you understand the changes.

It is important to know that there are also provincial and territorial child support guidelines. The guidelines that apply to you depend on your situation. This guide will help you figure out which guidelines apply to you. The child support laws in most provinces and territories are much like the Federal Guidelines or they may only have minor differences (except in Quebec, which has its own child support model). Many of them may refer to “custody” and “access” or use other language about parenting. Even if provincial or territorial guidelines apply in your situation, you may still find this guide helpful.

About the Federal Guidelines

The Federal Guidelines are a set of rules and tables used to determine child support when parents divorce. They are the law. Their main goals are:

  • to establish a fair standard of support for children so that they continue to benefit from both parents’ incomes after the separation or divorce
  • to reduce conflict and tension between parents by making the calculation of child support more objective
  • to ensure that parents and children in similar situations are treated the same
  • to make the legal process more efficient and encourage settlements by giving courts and parents guidance about child support

Child support agreements and orders

When relationships end, many parents agree on how they will deal with child support without going to court. It is generally best for everyone, especially children, when parents can agree. Asking a judge to make the decisions can be costly, time-consuming and stressful for families.

It is a good idea to put your child support agreement in writing so that you can remember what you agreed to.

You are encouraged to work out a child support agreement together. This guide can help you to figure out a child support agreement that will work best in your situation. It can also give you an idea of how much support a judge would likely order under the Federal Guidelines.

If you cannot agree or if you want to have your agreement put into a court order, either or both of you can apply to go to court to get a child support order.

Agreement in the context of child support means that you and the other parent come to a common understanding about your child support arrangements. The laws in your province set out how to make this agreement legally binding so that you both have to follow it.

Consent order means an order a judge will make once both parents agree on certain issues.

Court order is a written decision made by a judge. Parents must follow what the court order says.

Special circumstances

An order or written agreement could include special provisions that benefit your children directly or indirectly. For example, one of you might give your share of the family home to the other without compensation so the children won’t have to move. You or a court would need to consider special circumstances like this to make sure the amount of child support is fair and reasonable. If applying the Federal Guidelines would result in a child support amount that is not fair in your circumstances, you or the court may decide on a different child support amount.

Who can help?

A mediator is a third party who helps parents agree on issues related to separation and divorce, such as child support.

Legal adviser means a person who is qualified in a province to give legal advice to someone or represent them in court. This can be a lawyer and in some provinces may include other professionals.

Family justice services and programs are public or private services and programs that help people dealing with issues arising from separation and divorce.

There are many people who can help you reach an agreement on child support issues. For example, mediators, legal advisers and accountants often work with parents. Also, every province and territory offers services for separating or divorcing parents. Some of these provincial and territorial family justice services and programs are listed on the family law pages of the Department of Justice Canada website. You may find others on the website of your ministry of justice.

Family law issues can be complex. A legal adviser can give you legal advice about all the different factors that are important in your situation. The decisions you make and how your order or agreement is written can also have an impact on your taxes and what benefits you can claim. When you are trying to agree on child support or want to go to court to deal with certain issues, it is important to speak with a legal adviser to make sure you understand:

  • your legal rights and responsibilities, and the rights of your children
  • your parenting responsibilities
  • the options for resolving differences between you and the other parent
  • how the court system works
  • how family dispute resolution processes such as negotiation, mediation and arbitration work

Some provinces and territories have referral services that offer a consultation with a legal adviser for free or at a reduced price. To see a list of services available in your area, visit the Department of Justice Canada’s family law pages. You may also wish to contact your local legal aid office to see if you qualify for legal aid. You can search the Internet for legal aid in your city or area—for example, search “legal aid” and the name of your city or town.

Finally, you may want to talk to a family member or a friend you trust about how you feel. Someone who has gone through similar situations may have suggestions to help you cope with your divorce or separation.

Related issues

As parents, child support is just one issue you need to think about when you separate or divorce. You also need to consider issues like parenting time and decision-making responsibility, spousal support and how you will divide property. The decisions you make about these issues could affect how you calculate child support.

The Family Law pages of the Department of Justice Canada website have some general information that may help you. For example, there are three online tools to help you make decisions about parenting and set up a parenting plan that will work for your family. These are:

A parenting plan is a written document that describes how parents not living together will care for and make important decisions about their children in both homes.

If you are creating a parenting plan or have already created one, you may want to keep it with your child support agreement. It is a good idea to keep all documents relating to your children together.

There are also some tools that may help your children understand and cope with your separation or divorce, including:

For more information

If you have questions this guide doesn’t answer, you can find more information on the Department of Justice Canada’s Family Law webpages. You can also call the Department’s Family Law Information Line at 1-888-373-2222 or email your questions to infofam@justice.gc.ca.

It’s important for you to know that officials of the Department of Justice Canada cannot give legal advice to the public. This means officials cannot tell you how the law would apply in your particular case, interpret court decisions, or tell you what steps you should take based on the specific facts of your case. Officials can only give members of the public general legal information. If you need legal advice about your rights and obligations or a legal opinion on your specific situation, you may wish to consult with a legal adviser.

Other Government of Canada websites offer information on issues that you may have to deal with when you separate or divorce. For example, separation or divorce could have an impact on your taxes. You may want to visit the Canada Revenue Agency website or call their information line at 1-800-959-8281 for more information about the tax consequences of separation and divorce.

You can also contact a provincial or territorial public legal education and information (PLEI) organization. PLEI organizations give information to the public about many different areas of law, including family law. To see a list of these services, visit the Department of Justice Canada’s Family Law webpages.

Your duties under the Divorce Act

Parents who have or are applying for a Divorce Act order have certain duties under the Act.

1. Best interests of the child

If you have a parenting order from a court setting out parenting time or parents’ decision-making responsibilities, or if you have an old custody order (from before March 1, 2021) under the Divorce Act, you have a duty to act in your child’s best interests.

2. Protection of children from conflict

If you are involved in any court proceedings under the Divorce Act, you have a duty to protect your children from the conflict to the best of your ability. This means that you should, for example, avoid discussing the details of your legal case with your children.

3. Family dispute resolution process

The Divorce Act says that you must try to resolve disputes through a family dispute resolution process, like mediation, as long as it is appropriate. Family dispute resolution can be faster, less expensive and more collaborative than court processes.

Family dispute resolution isn’t appropriate in all cases. For example, if there has been family violence and there are ongoing safety issues or concerns, it might be best to speak to a legal adviser about your different options.

4. Complete, accurate and up-to-date information

Courts need complete, accurate and up-to-date information to make orders best suited to each individual family. This means you will need to give all information required, and ensure the information is accurate and up to date. For example, courts must have parents’ income information to determine fair and accurate child support amounts. It is in children’s best interests to give all necessary information as soon as it is required.

5. Duty to comply with orders

You must follow court orders. Not following your court orders can lead to serious legal consequences. The court makes an order that it has determined is in the best interests of the child. There may later be a change in your life or in your children’s lives that the court order didn’t foresee. If you feel that you court order no longer fits your situation or that of your children, you should go back to court to have the order changed to reflect the new situation.

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