A recent ruling opened the door for parents to obtain child support for disabled adults over the age of 18 in Ontario.
Constitutional Challenge to Ontario’s Child Support Law
The case of Coates v. Watson involves a single mother Robyn Coates and her adult son. Coates’s 22 year old son is developmentally disabled, requiring her continued financial support to get by. She challenged the law that allowed her son’s estranged father, Watson, to stop paying child support when their son turned 18.
Under s.31 of Ontario’s Family Law Act, child support obligations end when the child is 18 or no longer in school full-time. That was the case in Coates v. Watson.
However, the federal Divorce Act allows parents of disabled children over 18 to continue to collect child support – so long as the parents were at one point married. The fact that Coates and Watson never married meant their son was not eligible for child support past 18.
This discrepancy was the point Coates and her lawyer challenged in court. As it stood, the law afforded more rights to children of divorced than those whose parents never married.
Coates and her lawyer argued that children in the latter group should enjoy the same rights as the former. The lawyer representing Watson, on the other hand, argued that it it’s up to society as a whole, not parents, to care for disabled adults.
The Decision in Coates v. Watson
On July 7, Justice Sullivan ruled that s.31 of the Family Law Act was unconstitutional because it “widens the gap between historically disadvantaged groups and the rest of society.”
“Even if the perfect public supports were in place for people with disabilities, the legislative regime here denies access to child support to ‘illegitimate’ children in contrast to ‘legitimate’ children, sending the message that the claimant families are less worthy of respect, concern and consideration.”
The decision is the latest to expand the definition of what it means to be a “child” for the purpose of child support.
Family law provides a fascinating insight into changing social mores. Marriage and child-rearing are most intimate and important areas of our lives, and the state of family law is often a reflection of society as a whole. This decision, for example, reflects heightened awareness of the challenges facing families with disabled adults.