Changes to the Divorce Act

Couple holding wedding rings with certificate of divorce on the table

The federal Divorce Act changed on March 1, 2021. If you’re in the process of getting a divorce, or are married and thinking about getting a divorce, the new rules apply to you. They apply even if your case started before the changes to the Divorce Act. Learn about some of the important changes to Canada’s divorce law.

What you should know

The Divorce Act only applies to people who are or used to be married to each other. If you and your ex-partner were never married to each other, the BC Family Law is the law that applies to you.

As of March 1, 2021, the terms “custody” and “access” aren't used in the Divorce Act. Instead, new terms are used to talk about parenting arrangements after separation.

Decision-making responsibility has replaced “custody.” The new term covers important parenting choices involving things like children’s health, education, language, and religion. These responsibilities can be shared between spouses or given to one spouse alone. A spouse with decision-making responsibility has the right to ask for and get information about their children’s health, education and well-being.

Parenting time means the time a spouse spends with a child. A spouse with parenting time has the right to make day-to-day decisions (including emergency decisions) about a child during their time with the child. They also have the right to ask for and get information about their children’s health, education and well-being.

Contact refers to the time that someone who isn’t a spouse might have with a child, like a grandparent. Someone with contact does not have the right to make day-to-day decisions about a child. Nor do they have the right to get information about the children’s health, education and well-being.

Learn more about how the law deals with parenting arrangements after separation.

When a court makes a decision about a child, it must be guided by only the best interests of the child. What’s new as of March 1, 2021 is a list of specific factors that the court and spouses can consider when deciding what’s in a child’s best interests. The factors include:

  • the child’s views and preferences
  • any court action or order relevant to the child’s safety and well-being
  • any family violence

When considering these and other factors, the court must give priority to the child’s physical, emotional, and psychological safety, security, and well-being.

In the new Divorce Act, family violence is defined. It means physical abuse as well as sexual abuse, psychological abuse, emotional abuse, and financial abuse. The definition also includes harassment and threats of harm to persons, pets, and property.

Also new is that the court will have to consider any existing or upcoming civil protection, child protection, or criminal court actions when family violence is an issue.

The court will also have to consider whether family violence is a factor when making a decision about the “best interests of a child.” If it is, then the court has to examine another important list of factors, including:

  • how often and how serious the family violence is
  • whether there is a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour
  • whether the person who has been violent has taken any steps to prevent future violence and improve their parenting

Learn more about how the law deals with family violence.

Starting March 1, 2021, new rules apply to what happens when someone wants to move away, with or without their child. When the move is likely to have a “significant impact” on the relationship a child has with someone who has parenting time, decision-making responsibility, or contact, the law calls this relocation.

Under the new law, when someone plans to relocate, they have to give 60 days’ written notice. This must be given to anyone who has parenting time, decision-making responsibility, or contact. (Notice may not have to be given if there is family violence.) Someone with parenting time or decision-making responsibility has 30 days to object to the relocation by giving written notice of their objection or filing a court application. Someone with contact cannot object to a plan to relocate.

Learn more about what’s involved if someone wants to relocate after separating.

The new Divorce Act encourages people to try to resolve their family problems out of court. They can do this through mediation, collaborative negotiation, or arbitration. Learn more about these ways to resolve problems.

Many other changes have been made to the Divorce Act. And some related federal laws — about child support enforcement and pensions, for example — have also been changed. To learn more about them, visit the federal Department of Justice’s website and the wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law.

Common questions

Starting March 1, 2021, the terms “custody” and “access” aren't used in the Divorce Act. The change to the Divorce Act won’t change older agreements or orders that talk about custody and access.

A former spouse with “custody” under an older agreement or order will have decision-making responsibility and parenting time. A former spouse who has “access” but not custody will have parenting time. But they still won’t be able to participate in making decisions about their child, other than day-to-day decisions when the child is with them. Someone who has “access” to a child but isn’t a spouse will have contact with the child.

Before March 1, 2021After March 1, 2021
CustodyDecision-making responsibility and parenting time
AccessParenting time, for people who are spouses
AccessContact, for people who aren’t spouses

An agreement or order about custody and access made before March 1, 2021 is still valid. Some legal terms have changed, but those changes don’t require you to go to court to update your existing agreement or order.

To make a change to a Divorce Act custody or access order, you or the other spouse has to prove there’s been an important change that affects your children. This is called a “change in circumstances” in the Act. The changes to the Divorce Act are not a change in circumstances.

The new Divorce Act applies if you have to go to court to change your agreement or order after February 2021.

If the new law came into effect after you filed a court application but before you received your order, the new Divorce Act applies.

Who can help

The federal Department of Justice website provides detailed information about the changes to the Divorce Act.

The wikibook JP Boyd on Family Law explains the changes to the Divorce Act.

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 for legal accuracy in March 2021
  • Time to read: 5 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

JP Boyd, KC, Boyd Arbitration Chambers

JP Boyd, KC, Boyd Arbitration Chambers

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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.


On Dial-A-Law

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

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