The breakup of a relationship can leave partners on an unequal financial footing. A spouse who’s struggling moneywise may ask the other for help. Learn about spousal support.
What you should know
Spousal support is money paid by one spouse (the payor) to the other (the recipient) after separation. It’s meant to:
help with living costs and ease financial strain the breakup may have caused
assist a spouse who’s struggling financially because of the relationship or its breakdown
compensate a spouse for their role in the relationship (for example, a spouse who sacrificed their career to care for children)
help each spouse become financially independent within a reasonable amount of time
Spousal support is usually paid under an agreement or court order after a relationship ends. This doesn’t automatically happen — you have to apply for spousal support. Anyone who was in a married or unmarried spousal relationship can do so. Each couple’s circumstances will determine how much support is paid, if any.
Anyone who qualifies as a spouse can ask for spousal support after separation.
There are two laws that deal with spousal support: the federal Divorce Act and the provincial Family Law Act. Under the federal Divorce Act, spouses are people who are, or were, married to each other.
Under BC’s Family Law Act, spouses are people who:
have lived together in a “marriage-like relationship” for at least two years, or
have lived together in a “marriage-like relationship” for less than two years and have a child together.
Married spouses can seek spousal support under either Act. Unmarried spouses can only ask for spousal support under the Family Law Act.
Many factors determine whether a spouse can get spousal support. Some of these include:
Length of the relationship. The longer the relationship, the more likely spousal support will be awarded.
Difference in incomes. The greater the difference between the spouses’ incomes at the end of a relationship, the more likely spousal support will be awarded.
Economic disadvantage. The worse off financially the relationship has left one spouse, the more likely that spouse will be awarded support. A struggling spouse may have left the workforce to raise a child, for example, leading them to miss out on developing job skills and on getting raises.
Earning capacity. The less capable a spouse is of earning an income, the more likely spousal support will be awarded. Earning potential can be limited by things like family obligations (such as providing child care) or a serious illness.
During the relationship, one spouse might have been supporting the other financially. That arrangement doesn’t end at the moment of the breakup. The supporting spouse must continue to help the other. On the other hand, if the spouses have been self-supporting all along, neither spouse is likely to get financial help after separation.
How a spouse acts usually doesn’t matter when it comes to spousal support. So, a spouse can still get support whether they’ve been, say, violent or unfaithful, or a victim of violence.
But, under BC family law, a court can look at how a spouse has acted to see whether:
a recipient is taking steps to become self-sufficient, or
a payor’s conduct unreasonably affects their ability to pay support (for example, a spouse quits their job so they don’t have to pay support).
Support payment amounts are usually based on the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines. These guidelines — used by a court or by the parties themselves — help determine how much spousal support should be paid and for how long.
This can get complicated. Especially if the couple has a child. For help, you can use free online calculators, such as mysupportcalculator.ca. They can do simple calculations and give you an idea of how much support you might get.
Both spouses must provide full financial disclosure
Both spouses must share all details about their financial situation with each other. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in court or trying to settle out of court. (Spouses often complete and exchange financial statements using the forms required by the courts, even when they’re not in a court proceeding.)
Financial statements help the spouses get a complete picture of their property and debts and their income and liabilities. Financial statements are usually provided along with important documents like income tax returns, tax assessments, and copies of financial documents such as bank statements.
Once it’s clear that spousal support is owed, and how much is payable, the next question is: for how long? The answer often depends on how long the spouses were together.
People leaving long relationships might receive spousal support for their whole lives — or at least until the payor of support retires. The courts recognize that the older a person is, the harder it generally is to get back into the workforce or to retrain.
People who’ve been in shorter relationships might receive support for a limited time. This is true especially where the recipient is either working outside the home or capable of working outside the home.
Each spouse is expected to make reasonable efforts to support themselves. For example, a spouse may need job training before going back to work. In that case, support payments may be limited to the time needed to complete that training.
Spouses can make arrangements for spousal support in a separation agreement. If they can’t agree, one of them can apply to court for a spousal support order.
Which court to go to
A married spouse can apply for spousal support in:
BC Supreme Court, under the Divorce Act or the Family Law Act, or
the Provincial Court, under the Family Law Act.
An unmarried spouse can apply for spousal support in either the Supreme Court or the Provincial Court under the Family Law Act.
Each court has its own rules and forms. For Provincial Court, see our information on Provincial (Family) Court.
Getting “interim” support
While the court case is ongoing, either spouse may ask the court for an interim order for spousal support. This is a temporary order meant to last until the case is settled or goes to trial. For more on interim orders in Supreme Court, see our information on applying for an interim order in a family law case in Supreme Court.
When determining whether to make an order for interim support, the court will look at the “means and needs” of the parties. That is: does the recipient have the need for support, and does the payor have the means to pay?
It depends on which law you use and whether you’re a married or unmarried spouse. Under the Divorce Act, there’s no time limit. A married spouse can ask for spousal support at any point after a divorce. But, in practice, it’s important to apply for spousal support in a timely way.
Under the Family Law Act, married spouses have to start a court action for spousal support within two years of the date of their divorce or annulment. Unmarried spouses have to start a court action within two years of the date of their separation.
If your spouse doesn’t pay the spousal support required by a court order or agreement, the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program can help. This free BC government program can help you collect the support payments you’re owed. It can monitor a support order to make sure payments continue to be made. For more, see our information on enforcing support orders and agreements.
What if, after spousal support has been court ordered or agreed to, one spouse has a big change in their financial circumstances — for better or worse? (Examples include a job loss or a wage increase.) In this case, either spouse can apply to change the support order or renegotiate the separation agreement. Generally, the change must be significant. And it can’t have been foreseeable when the support order or agreement was made.
Note that if you want to change an order and the other spouse lives outside of BC, there is a specific procedure to follow under each of the BC Family Law Act and the federal Divorce Act.
After a couple separates, one spouse might be receiving income assistance from the BC Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. That spouse may want help with getting an agreement or court order for spousal support. In this case, the ministry may step in to help the income assistance recipient. It may ask that spouse to assign their rights to spousal support to them. The ministry can then help with obtaining or defending a spousal support order or agreement, which can be enrolled with the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program for enforcement.
Spousal support is considered taxable income for the spouse who receives it. It counts as a tax deduction for the spouse paying it. The recipient must report the income to the Canada Revenue Agency and pay tax on it, just like employment income. The payor can claim the payments as a tax deduction, just like RRSP contributions.
For spousal support payments to be taxable and deductible, the payments must be:
paid because of a written agreement or a court order,
made on a periodic basis, such as once a month or once every two weeks, and
Other kinds of support payments — such as those made in a lump sum or “in kind” (that is, paid in services, not money) — aren’t taxable or deductible. It may be necessary to speak to a lawyer to confirm the tax status of spousal support payments.
When you’re figuring out how much spousal support should be paid, keep in mind the tax consequences of support payments. For more on this, see our information on the tax implications of support payments.
Who can help
Family justice counsellors in Family Justice Centres throughout BC can help couples understand spousal support, mediate and prepare a separation agreement, or help prepare materials to get a support order in Provincial Court. Their services are free.
Call 604-660-2421 (Lower Mainland)
Call 1-800-663-7867 (toll-free, Kelowna)
Other options for legal help include legal aid, pro bono services, legal clinics, and advocates. See our information on free and low-cost legal help.