Child and spousal support not covered by government’s coronavirus emergency benefit plan

Family law lawyer Michelle Guy, Vancouver, B.C. Courtesy Michelle Guy

Single parents who rely on spousal or child support payments as their primary source of income — and whose ex-partners can’t afford to pay due to the novel coronavirus pandemic — do not qualify for help through the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), Global News has learned.

This is despite assurances from the government that it would work to fill gaps in eligibility requirements for the program.

“I have clients who have come to me and said, ‘I don’t qualify for any of these programs. How am I going to feed my children?’” said Michelle Guy, a family law lawyer from Vancouver.

Guy has several clients whose ex-partners have lost their jobs and are no longer able to provide support payments.

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One of Guy’s clients is a single mom and full-time university student. Her ex-husband owns an optometry clinic and, as part of their divorce settlement, agreed to pay child and spousal support.

When her ex-husband’s business closed on March 18 due to COVID-19, his lawyer sent a letter saying he could no longer afford his support payments because of the loss of income. 

This left the woman feeling like she was unable to provide for her children because she doesn’t qualify for any of the existing relief programs.

“With no income, and no government benefits, what are single moms to do to support our children?” the woman said in a letter sent to New Democratic MP Jenny Kwan asking for help.

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Must have ‘been working’ to qualify

In an email sent late Monday, a spokesperson for Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said that to qualify for the CERB a person must “have been working and ceased working due to COVID-19.”

This information was provided in response to questions that explicitly asked if someone who receives child support, spousal support or child and spousal support and then loses these payments due to an ex-partner’s inability to pay is eligible for the program.

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And while it’s unusual for someone to rely on support payments as their only source of revenue, it does happen, Guy said. 

There are many more people for whom these payments make up a significant portion of their income and who are now going without, she said, because their ex-partners can’t afford to pay.

“Unfortunately, the trickle-down effect of the economics of this pandemic is that children, the most vulnerable members of our society, will be the ones bearing the brunt of the suffering,” Guy said.

Uptick in people unable to pay

Ryan Kniznik, a Toronto family law lawyer, said he’s seen a jump in the number of clients who can’t make child and spousal support payments because of COVID-19.

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In many cases, clients are figuring out ways to pay whatever they can, he said. This includes taking out loans, deferring expenses and paying reduced amounts. 

But there are situations where people cannot pay at all, he said, including small business owners with significant expenses and profound losses of income.

“If people literally don’t have support, and they don’t qualify for (emergency benefits), they’re going to be in a really tough spot,” he said.

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Meanwhile, Ashley Krol, a Toronto divorce lawyer, said she’s anticipating a 50 per cent increase in the amount of work her firm does on child and spousal support cases because of COVID-19. 

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This is similar to what her firm experienced following the 2008 financial crisis, she said, when there was a spike in applications filed with provincial courts seeking adjustments to how much should be paid in support due to declining incomes.

“It’s fair to say there will be an explosion of cases,” Krol said.

Lack of support a ‘catastrophic’ problem

Losing spousal or child support due to COVID-19 is a “catastrophic” problem, Guy said. 

She believes the government should find a way to bridge this gap for anyone whose ex-partner can’t afford to pay and that this support should be guaranteed throughout the duration of the pandemic.

Maya Roy, the CEO of YWCA Canada, agrees with Guy, adding that the financial consequences of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected women because they’re more likely to work in the retail and service sector jobs hardest hit by the pandemic.

Roy said women are also more likely to be the recipients of child and spousal support and that an ex-partner’s inability to pay could put families at risk of being unable to provide basic necessities and the care children need.

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“This policy is actually going to push women further into poverty,” she said. “Most women are already living paycheque to paycheque. This policy is just going to make it worse.”

Expanded eligibility for CERB

On Saturday, the government promised it would expand CERB eligibility to include seasonal workers, students, business owners, those who’ve exhausted employment insurance benefits and anyone earning modest incomes from part-time work, royalties and honoraria.

The government also promised essential workers earning low wages will receive additional financial support and that it will not “unjustly penalize” anyone who applies for the CERB in good faith and is later found ineligible.

Global News asked if the government considered including people who rely on spousal or child support payments when designing the CERB’s eligibility requirements, but no direct answer was provided.

Marielle Hossack, a spokesperson for Qualtrough’s office, said the government’s goal when creating the CERB was to “get funding out to as many Canadian workers as quickly as possible.”

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She also said the program is intended for workers who lost their job and expect to be without employment or self-employment income for at least 14 consecutive days during each eligibility period.

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Hossack added the government is providing additional support to 12 million families through enhanced GST rebates and to three million families through increases to the Canada Child Benefit.

“During this challenging time, our government is unwavering in our support for families,” she said.

Hossack did not indicate if the government plans to expand eligibility for financial assistance to anyone who’s lost spousal or child support payments due to COVID-19.

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