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Enforcing support orders and agreements

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Many parents and spouses make support payments they owe under a support order or agreement. Unfortunately, some don’t make their payments. Learn what steps to take to enforce payments owed under a support order or agreement.

“After we separated, my partner followed our separation agreement. He paid child support for both children for two years. Then he suddenly stopped paying after he got into a new relationship. I filed my separation agreement in court and registered with the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program. They’ve collected my child support payments for me every month for the last five years — for free.”

– Irena, Port Alberni, BC

Middle aged woman with brown hair, smiling

What you should know

After separation, one spouse may pay the other spousal support to help with living expenses. If the couple has children, one parent may pay the other child support to help with the costs of raising them.

Spousal support or child support payments can be set out in a court order or a separation agreement.

A court order for support is a court’s decision that one person (the “payor”) pay the other person (the “recipient”) a certain amount, usually on a monthly basis. If support isn’t paid, the recipient can take steps to enforce a court order right away.

A separation agreement, on the other hand, is a private contract between partners who have separated. It can be enforced in the courts under the law of contracts. But it’s simpler to file the separation agreement in court. This allows it to be enforced as if it were a court order.

If a payor doesn’t pay support under a court order or agreement, they owe money.

This is called arrears or arrears of support.

There are two ways a recipient can collect arrears. They can:

  1. take steps themselves to enforce the support order or agreement in court, or
  2. get help from a free government program called the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program.

If a payor hasn’t made support payments to you, you have many options to enforce payment. As long as a support order or a separation agreement has been filed in court, some things you can do include:

  • Apply for a court order to garnish the payor's wages or bank accounts. This means that money from a payor’s wages or bank account is taken and redirected to you. Up to a maximum of 50% of the payor’s wages can be garnished. But, there is no limit on how much money can be garnished from a bank account.
  • Apply for an order to sell some of their property to pay the arrears.

You can also force the payor to disclose information about their finances. Doing so can help you figure out how to best collect the arrears. For example, you can ask the payor to:

  • Attend a default hearing. This is a court hearing where the payor has to explain why they aren’t paying support. They also have to provide a statement of their finances.
  • Attend an examination hearing. In this court hearing, you can question the payor under oath about their finances.

For any of these steps, you must apply to court and explain to a judge why the order you’re asking for should be granted. The process of applying to court can be complicated. It’s a good idea to speak with a lawyer first.

The Family Maintenance Enforcement Program (FMEP) is a free service provided by the provincial government. FMEP enforces support orders and agreements. The program collects support owed from a payor and sends it to the recipient.

How to enroll in the program

Either a payor or recipient can enroll in FMEP as long as a support order or separation agreement has been filed in court. The enrollment package is online. Or you can request that FMEP mail you the package.

After you’re enrolled in the program

Once a case is enrolled, the payor sends all support payments to the program. FMEP processes them and then sends them on to the recipient. It tracks when payments are due, and how and when payments are made. If a payor misses payments and arrears add up, there are several steps FMEP can take. We explain this shortly.

To withdraw from the program, the person who enrolled the support order or agreement with FMEP needs to send a request in writing.

If it was the recipient who enrolled, they can withdraw at any time. If it was the payor who enrolled, the recipient has to agree to the payor’s withdrawal from the program.

Tip

After enrollment, a payor or recipient may want to change the support order or agreement. If they start any negotiations or legal action to make a change, they must let FMEP know. 

To enforce a support order or agreement, FMEP can take all legal steps the support recipient could take on their own — and more. For example, it can restrict the payor’s driver’s licence or take away their passport. See the FMEP website for a full list of enforcement steps.

If support payments are missed and arrears are owed, the enforcement steps the program can take depend on:

  • how much money is owed,
  • the current situation of the payor, and
  • the actions the program thinks have the best chance of success in the circumstances.

Notice of attachment

FMEP can issue a notice of attachment to any person or institution that owes money to the payor. The notice requires that the funds be redirected to the recipient through the program. Sources that can be attached include employers, banks, and WorkSafeBC. Federal government payments — such as income tax refunds and Employment Insurance benefits — can also be attached.

Lien against property

FMEP can file the support order against any property (whether a car, manufactured home, or land) owned by the payor. Doing so means the property can’t be sold or re-mortgaged without the support arrears being dealt with first.

Cancelling or restricting the payor’s passport or driver’s licence

When a payor falls $3,000 or more behind in support payments and FMEP has been unable to collect the support, it can:

  • ask the federal government to suspend or deny a payor’s passport
  • tell ICBC to:
    • cancel a payor’s current driver’s licence
    • refuse to renew a payor’s driver’s licence
    • refuse to give or renew a payor’s motor vehicle licence (without a vehicle licence, a payor can’t buy vehicle insurance)

These are serious steps. FMEP takes them only after having tried unsuccessfully to collect the support payments in other ways.

Court enforcement

Ultimately, if a payor still doesn’t pay, FMEP can bring the case to court. In court, the payor has to explain why they didn’t pay support. The court can decide to take further action to enforce payment of the arrears — including putting the payor in jail.

Common questions

In most cases, support recipients enrolled with the program get some or all of the support that is due to them each year. However, some payors make it very difficult for FMEP to collect — even leaving the country to avoid paying support. Others may have no income or assets, or may be receiving income assistance. So it can take a long time to collect what’s owed to recipients. But FMEP will continue to pursue payments as long as the support recipient is enrolled with them.

It’s always a good idea to be proactive and enroll with the program if there are problems around support payments. If you’re a support recipient and the payor misses a payment, you should enroll immediately.

No. You need to contact the program to get permission before you can take enforcement action on your own.

Who can help

The Family Maintenance Enforcement Program website explains how to enroll in the program. It also has information about the steps FMEP can take to enforce a support order or agreement. FMEP also has three client offices throughout BC.

The BC government website has information about enforcing a support order or agreement through FMEP.

The wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law, hosted by Courthouse Libraries BC, has information on arrears of child support and arrears of spousal support. It also has information about enforcing child and spousal support orders.

Options for legal help include legal aid, pro bono services, legal clinics, and advocates. See our information on free and low-cost legal help.

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed in February 2020
  • Time to read: 6 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Maintenance Enforcement & Locate Services, Ministry of Attorney General

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This information from People’s Law School explains in a general way the law that applies in British Columbia, Canada. The information is not intended as legal advice. See our disclaimer.

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On Dial-A-Law

Dial-A-Law has more information on Support & property in the section on Families + Children.