Making Decisions after Separation

When a relationship ends, whether you are married or living together, you will have to make decisions about:

  • What is best for your children
  • Who pays child support and how much
  • How to divide the property that you own together
  • How much money you owe to others (your debt)
  • How to divide the money you have saved
  • Whether you or your spouse needs financial support

Your children come first

Children were always important in family law, but the best interests of the child are the most important under the Family Law Act. That means all decisions after a separation about the care of children must be based on what is best for the children — not what is best for the parents. It means that you and everyone involved must think about how the children were taken care of in the past, how to protect the children’s safety, and usually what the children’s views are too.

Who looks after the children?

Parents who have lived together with their child are the child’s “guardians” during their relationship and after they separate. Guardians make decisions about where the child will live, which school he or she will attend, which religion he or she will practice, medical treatment, applying for a passport and so on. These are called “parental responsibilities.” These responsibilities can be shared or divided between you and the other parent in an agreement or court order in a way that will be best for the children. 

Even a parent who does not live in Canada will be considered a guardian if he or she has lived with the child or has regularly cared for the child. This does not change unless a child’s guardians agree that a parent will not be a guardian or unless a court makes an order to end a parent’s guardianship.

For more about guardianship, see Guardianship: Parenting time and parental responsibilities on the Family Law in BC website.

When do I get to spend time with my children?

The law talks about time with children after a separation. Parents who share parental responsibilities usually have “parenting time” with their children. Other important people in the children’s lives may have something called “contact” with the children. For example, the law supports connections between children and their grandparents when they are in a child’s best interests. However, someone with contact cannot make decisions about the children’s lives.

You may have heard the terms “custody” and “access” to describe who the children will live with or spend time with after a separation. The words are not used in the Family Law Act but are still used under Canada’s Divorce Act. For more information, see the Custody and Access pages on the Family Law in BC website.

Sometimes a parent does not want the other parent to see the children, maybe because they are angry with them. But if a parent has a written agreement or court order to see their children, the other parent cannot refuse to let them see the children. If a person is prevented from seeing their children, the parents can try to work it out, perhaps with the help of a mediator or counsellor, or the parent can go to court.

For information about parenting and what to do if you suspect your child is in danger or being abused, see the Parenting fact sheet of the Live Safe – End Abuse series from the Legal Services Society.

To emotionally support your children after separation, it is a good idea to take a short course called Parenting after Separation. It is available as a free workshop or as an online course. It will teach you how to make good decisions about caring for your children when you are getting separated or divorced.

Money to support your children

Your financial situation will change a lot when you get separated, especially if you have children. If the children live with you most of the time, the other parent will have to pay for food, clothes, and maybe day care for the children.

Both parents have a responsibility to financially support their children after a separation. The amount that you have to pay depends on your income. The law has rules — the Child Support Guidelines — about how to calculate the right amount of money. Usually it is the parent who has the children the least amount of time who has to pay the parent who has the children most of the time. Even if the children do not live with you, you still have to give money to support them.

If you have a court order or agreement for child support, the law can force you to pay it. Each province has its own child support enforcement agency. In BC, it is the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program. These agencies are responsible for collecting child support and child support arrears (money that is owed and should have been paid earlier).

Do not confuse payment of money for child support with parenting time. They are not related. If the other parent is not following the agreement for parenting time as you agreed or the court ordered, you do not have the right to refuse to pay child support.

For more, see Child support on the Family Law in BC website.

Money to support you or your spouse

You always have to pay child support, whether you were married or not. Spousal support sometimes has to be paid by the spouse with more income or property to the spouse who has less. For example, if you do not have a job, you may need some financial support for a period of time. If you cannot agree on how much support is needed, a judge will ask you questions like these:

  • How long did you live together?
  • How much money do you both earn?
  • Did one parent stay at home to take care of the children?
  • Is there a reason that you cannot get a good job (maybe you are very sick)?

A parent sometimes stays home to take care of the children. If the parent cannot find a job because he or she has no job skills, the spouse might have to pay money to the other parent until he or she is trained and finds a job. The government tells a spouse or partner how much they should pay to support the other one (see Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines). The guidelines are not law, but they help people know how much money to pay.

Married spouses must apply for spousal support within two years after they divorce or the marriage is annulled. Unmarried spouses must apply within two years after they separate.

For more, see Spousal support on the Family Law in BC website. 

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