Why do some parents comply with child support orders while others do not? What factors influence a parent's payment or non-payment of child support orders? Research on factors influencing compliance and default in general, and Canadian research in particular, has not been conclusive. While it appears that income levels and other measures of ability to pay do play a significant role, research also suggests that other factors related to the divorce and separation process itself, and social and psychological factors related to the break-up of the partnership, play an important role for some non-complying parents.

In one sense, the research is striking in its consistency: the focus has been on default, and the possible reasons for default, as opposed to examining full compliance and the factors that lead non-custodial parents to pay support consistently. A few studies have made passing reference to continued strong ties to the children as being a positive influence on compliance, but compliance itself has not been the focus of research.

The need for Canadian research on the determinants of compliance or non-compliance is even more pressing, given the emphasis that the federal, provincial and territorial governments have placed on child support enforcement in recent years and given the many media accounts of high rates of default. The Department of Justice Canada and the provincial and territorial governments will need to extend their current partnership on enforcement policy and programs in order to support a substantial research program that will improve the focus of policy discussions.

This bulletin provides a brief summary of the first research project on this topic for the Child Support Team of the Department of Justice Canada. The work was performed by Alderson-Gill & Associates Consulting Inc. The first part of the project consisted of a literature review of Canadian and American articles and books addressing default on or compliance with child support orders. The second part proposed a research strategy for conducting similar research in Canada, citing various approaches, methodologies and data sources, and outlining their relative strengths and weaknesses.


On March 6, 1996, the federal government announced its policy intentions regarding child support. One of the four initiatives announced were measures to enhance the enforcement of support orders in Canada. As part of the commitment to assist in the enforcement of support, the federal government agreed to undertake a national study to determine the reasons why people comply with or default on their child support orders in Canada. Answers to these questions will help focus policy initiatives that target enforcement tools more appropriately and help the provincial and territorial Maintenance Enforcement Programs (MEP) improve program delivery.

Main Findings

Part I: Literature Review

The researcher found many American studies on the subject of default and compliance regarding support orders, but very few Canadian articles.

The American studies examined a number of factors that appeared to influence default and compliance. These factors can be grouped into three categories. The first category includes factors related to income (e.g., unemployment, low income, magnitude of support order as percentage of income). The second category includes factors related to the divorce and separation process (e.g., access and visitation arrangements, custody arrangements, experience with the court and legal process). The final category includes social and psychological factors (e.g., non-custodial parents' involvement with children before and after separation, disapproval or mistrust of how support payments are spent, levels of conflict between parents).

While a large number of studies examined these factors, most used the same or similar methodologies. Most were empirical studies consisting primarily of gathering or extracting data from state or local child support enforcement offices or from family court records. This data was sometimes linked to other socio-demographic data or interview data from the parties. Few of the studies were national in context. Most studied only local or state level effects on compliance.

One source of information that has been largely untapped to date is professionals such as support enforcement officers, family law lawyers and judges, mediators, court-based social workers, and individual and family counsellors. A few of the studies reviewed noted that these sources provided guidance in identifying parents as research subjects, but the sources were not used as research subjects themselves. It would seem, however, that people who spend their working lives providing services to divorcing and separating parents would be a useful source of information.

Part II: Proposed Research Strategy for Studying Default and Compliance

Research on the determinants of child support compliance can help the government determine the kinds of policies and programs that will help it achieve its objectives in the area of child support. There are several research challenges in contributing to policy development in this area. First, the research must build on existing research to identify the most important determinants of compliance. Second, the research must explore the potential for policy and program options to influence compliance. Finally, the research must also identify other factors affecting the welfare of children in divorce and separation.

However, our knowledge and understanding of the factors influencing compliance and non-compliance regarding child support orders is rudimentary. Research in Canada has been limited and even the more extensive body of research in the United States is somewhat narrow in its use of methodologies. Therefore, the development of a research strategy for the Department of Justice Canada will require an exploratory approach. The primary focus will be to explore the factors that are amenable to policy or program changes by the Department and its provincial and territorial partners.

The report outlines a number of policy and program areas that the federal, provincial and territorial governments could potentially influence to increase compliance with support orders. In recognition of these broad policy goals, the researcher cites ten possible studies that could provide insight into the reasons for compliance or non-compliance with orders. These studies vary in terms of the:

  1. types of factors that could be examined (e.g., income, process or social and psychological);
  2. types of methodology that would be employed (e.g., primary data collection, data extraction from existing administrative databases, interviews of professionals and parents); and
  3. sources of information that would be reviewed (e.g., maintenance enforcement programs' automated systems, family court records, various Statistics Canada surveys).

There are two major factors complicating research in this area. First, although many orders are registered with the provincial and territorial MEPs, a number of orders fall outside these programs. While it may be easy to measure default, compliance and some related factors from orders registered with the MEPs, it may require considerable effort to identify an appropriate sample of parents whose orders are not registered with a MEP. A second factor complicating research planning in this area is that there are no national data. The Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics is presently implementing the national Maintenance Enforcement Survey in each jurisdiction, which will remedy this lack of data. However, due to the timing of the implementation, it is unclear when the information collected will be able to contribute to this research.

The researcher notes that some of the ten studies listed can run concurrently, while others, that require information from earlier studies, must run consecutively. There are budget and time constraints in accomplishing such a body of research. This work must conform to the five-year framework of the Child Support Initiative and inform policy and program discussions over the next two years. To this end, the researcher maintains that exploiting readily available sources of information should be a first priority. Thus, the data contained in the administrative and operational automated systems of the MEPs and interviews with MEP staff would be rich sources of information.


This report is an important first step towards conducting the research required to answer questions on why people comply with or default on their child support orders.

The researcher suggests that the Department is constrained by the need to link its research to policy development, particularly in its areas of responsibility, and also to other areas of federal, provincial or territorial responsibility where it has working partnerships relating to child support. Decisions about which research to undertake within the budget and time constraints of the federal Child Support Initiative must balance short- and long-term policy interests. Also, the research strategy should consider the availability and accessibility, at reasonable cost, of information through federal, provincial and territorial partnerships.

The report further emphasizes the need to obtain information from the most readily available and knowledgeable sources. This means working closely with provincial and territorial officials in general, and with the respective Maintenance Enforcement Programs specifically, to collaborate and participate actively in this research project.

February 1999

Summary of report on research strategy for studying compliance/default on child support orders.

September 1999