In my travels as a family law lawyer, I have seen the many challenges that both support recipients and support payors go through in dealing with the government agency known as the Family Responsibility Office, the FRO. It is a much-maligned agency, having started as “Support and Custody Order Enforcement” (SCOE) and then the Family Support Plan (FSP). Up until the mid-1990s, the agency has been found in several major districts across the province, with people able to go to the district office and get questions answered and make their payments. This ended after the 1995 Harris government decided to centralize the service out of Toronto (Downsview, to be more precise).
Since then, it has been the scorn of many, and I so my clients quite often ask me: “Do I have to go through FRO.” Although the simple answer is “No,” we all know that family law is not that simple, and as such, the better answer is “It depends.” What does it depend upon? Let’s discuss it.
As I tell my clients, there are certain advantages of going through FRO. First and foremost, it eliminates the need for the support recipient to act as a debt collector, relying on the government agency to collect the support ordered for them. They collect the monies from the employer or the payor themselves, they process the payment, and they send it to you. You do not have to go through other costly and time-consuming court processes and mechanisms (such as garnishment hearings, judgment debtor examinations, filing writs, etc.) to try and collect your court-ordered support. They do it for you. Second, the FRO legislation has a number of remedies available, such as garnishing wages up to 50% and garnishing income tax refunds and HST refunds. Third, if the support payor is late with payments or is trying to avoid making payments, the FRO has tools that you do not have that can convince/compel a payor to make the necessary payments. These include directing the Ministry of Transportation to suspend the payor’s driver’s license, bring a default hearing and threatening jail if the support order is not brought into good standing or the support payor does not otherwise address the issue of the arrears. We don’t have debtor’s prison, but the threat of jail is in regards to violating a court order, and not for not paying the support. I have seen many support payors who will ignore the support order at first, but eventual make their payments in order to keep their licence or to stay out of jail. Finally, by going through FRO, a payor can be assured that they have done their part and cannot be hounded by the support recipient for direct cash payments that can be hard to prove were ever made. The list of advantages is not exhaustive.
On the other hand, like many other government agencies, FRO has its downside. It is often difficult to get a hold of someone at FRO who will spend the time with you to help you resolve your problem to your satisfaction. There is an institutional delay of weeks (and sometimes linger) from the time FRO collects the support from the payor and delivers it to the recipient. Many landlords are very unsympathetic to the tenants’ excuse that the FRO hasn’t paid them on time. Even when FRO is taking measures to collect, some payors can, unfortunately, “delay the process” by using different stall tactics to drag out the enforcement of the support order. It is not my intent in this blog to offer readers different ways in which a payor can stall FRO. Finally, the FRO court processes, although effective, are not usually quick. Sometimes the arrears can accumulate to massive amounts before the FRO starts acting on the file. Much to the chagrin of many (or may be not), FRO does not automatically start using its enforcement mechanisms after one late support payment. Sometimes the support recipient has to be the squeaky wheel that gets heard and gets addressed. Finally, some employers do see it as a hassle when dealing with an employee who has a FRO garnishment order. They are not supposed to consider this, but in reality, I have heard clients tell me that they have lost a job or been denied a job because of a support order is going through FRO. Once again, the list of disadvantages is not exhaustive.
As a general rule, when my client asks me whether they should or should not opt out of FRO, I ask them if there is trust between the parties, whether the payor works for a large company of small one, or is self-employed, and whether there is a comfort in dealing with one another for support issues. If there is trust going forward, then using FRO may not be necessary. If there isn’t any confidence that the payor will pay regularly or on time, then opting into FRO is your best bet.