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Dealing with custody of children during separation and divorce proceedings can be a tremendous burden for families. As your experienced child custody lawyers in Winnipeg, we at Fishman Beley will help you get all the information you need.
Len Fishman and Terry Beley Bring in over 90 Years of Combined Family Law Experience
Our leadership team of Len Fishman and Terry Beley together bring in over 90 years of experience in family law, that widely covers child custody law and how it applies in different situations. Child custody cases are generally very sensitive for the parents involved and they normally leave a deep impression on children. The Fishman Beley child custody lawyers in Winnipeg deal with several aspects of child custody cases like custody during a relationship, custody after separation, joint legal custody, best interests of the child and much more. We have long experience of handling such cases and we are respected for finding the most effective solutions that benefit everyone involved.
Custody of a child typically concerns who can give consent on behalf of a child, and where the children will live from time to time. If you need a child custody lawyer in Winnipeg, contact Fishman Beley.
The parents of children, while the family is intact, are said to have “joint custody” of them. Each, prior to separation, has all of the rights and obligations respecting their children, subject only to the court's oversight jurisdiction in the case of abuse or neglect, or the provisions of criminal law.
What this means is that the parents are responsible for the care, protection, health, education and welfare of their children. Each parent has the right and duty to act responsibly for the children. Each can make whatever decision is required, give any consent, and each has full responsibility for parental duties to their children. In case of disagreement, they must find a solution that works for their family. Unfortunately, this kind of disagreement can sometimes mean that they will separate and seek the court’s assistance.
Custody after Separation
Contested custody battles can be about a multitude of reasons ranging from profound and intractable differences that go to the core of human existence while, at other times, the parties are fighting over terminology or mundane trivialities.
On separation, unless the parents agree otherwise, or the court on application makes an order, they continue to have joint custody.
The typical formulations of custody, after separation, are sole custody to one parent with the other having access or visiting rights, or the parties may retain joint custody, with physical care and control, or parenting time, being divided between them. This division can be equal or some other formulation can be designed. The question of decision-making authority often takes centre stage in the disputes between the parties.
Major Changes To The Divorce Act Respecting Children
Sweeping amendments to the Divorce Act made in 2019 and effective July 1, 2020 are intended to reform the landscape of custody determinations:
Joint Legal Custody
The term "joint custody", while often confused with equal “shared parenting”, speaks mainly to the “legal” side of things; that is, the ability to give legal consent or to make legal decisions for a child. Parents share joint custody when they live together and continue to so after separation unless they agree or a court orders otherwise. It is not dependent on where the children actually live, that is, how the parents share physical “care and control”.
When a court orders that the parties shall have joint custody, it simply means each parent can make all of the decisions and has all of the same rights as the other respecting the child, as previously, for instance, enrolling a child in school or giving consent relating to medical situations.
Some people, in the post-separation period, are able to agree on what is best for the children and find ways to manage their lives and those of the children, peaceably, without formal agreements or court orders. They are the wise and lucky ones, and their children have the best chance of surviving their parent’s separation.
When the court makes a determination of the custody, care and control of children it is governed by answering the test question: "What is in the best interests of the child?” Statutory guidance as to the meaning of this test can be found in The Family Maintenance Act and The Child and Family Services Act and the thousands of reported cases interpreting those guidelines in the light of the myriad array of facts to be found in them.
Best interests of a child is a flexible concept as a child’s views, ideas, social mores keep changing over time. An appreciation of the test will include considerations of the age of the child, the past history of care, a recognition of the need for stability in the child's life, the parent's respective custody plans, the willingness of the parents to involve the other in the child’s life, the specific needs of the child, the drive to keep children together, and may also include taking account of financial, moral or religious issues.
However, each case of custody is different from the other, hence predicting outcomes is not only difficult but practically impossible. Sometimes, the reality is that the court is required to choose “the least detrimental alternative.”
Manitoba’s Family Maintenance Act currently defines “the best interests of the child” in a non-exhaustive fashion to include:
The Divorce Act now stipulates that the primary consideration in parenting cases shall be the best interests test, the “child’s safety, security and well-being”, and further that parents must now conduct themselves in relation to their children in accordance with the children’s best interest and to protect the child from conflict arising from the proceedings. These amendments promote sensitivity towards the needs and feelings of the child rather than the parents’ dispute.
The Divorce Act articulates a list of non-exhaustive factors which will inform the court’s deliberations of what is in the best interests of the child. This list, while repeating most of the provisions of our provincial statute, are worth restating:
“Sole custody” usually means that one parent will have sole legal and primary physical custody, with the other parent having “access” or “visiting rights.” A child whose parents have never lived together after the child’s birth is deemed to be in the sole custody of the parent with whom they are living. This, of course, can be changed by the court on application.
The parent with sole custody can make all major decisions respecting the child. Generally, that parent will also have the right, subject to a court ruling otherwise, or being in breach of an access order, to move with the child to another province or country.
The courts, which only a couple of decades ago were reluctant to order joint custody where the parents showed an inability to work together, are now just as reluctant to order sole custody, except in unusual circumstances, such as where the other parent is seen as unfit, or absent. Most cases now see the parents having “joint custody”.
Sometimes the court will designate one parent as having “primary care and control,” or "primary parenting time" which, on its simplest level, means that the children live most of the time with one of the parents. For child support purposes, the primary parent will typically have care of the child over 60% of the time throughout the year and the other parent will pay the table amount. See our Primer of Child Support.
The term “primary” has, however, taken on a different gloss to imply that one parent is in a position to dictate certain things, that is, make decisions, by virtue of that designation, whether or not that decision making power has been decided. This follows from the decision of the Manitoba Court of Appeal in Lamont-Daneault v. Daneault, in which they determined that decision-making should usually reside with the primary parent.
In a "split custody" case – that is, where there are at least 2 children, one of whom is living with each parent more than 60% of the time and the other(s) living with the other parent more than 60% of the time or perhaps being equally shared – the court performs the mathematical exercise of determining the table amount for each parent for the child in the primary care of the other parent and offsetting one against the other. The court has no discretion about the amount of support payable in a split custody case. Usually one party pays the net amount, that is, the difference between the two amounts. See our discussion about the tax issues that might arise.
A “shared custody” arrangement, as defined by the Child Support Guidelines, about which you will find more in our Primer on Child Support, is defined as one where a child's physical custody or parenting time is shared between the parents with each having the child in their respective care between 40% and 60% of the time over the year.
This percentage is important as the court will have the rare opportunity of determining child support other than as dictated by the Guidelines. This, however, comes with its own challenges. It is often considered a trigger for claims of shared custody, not so much having to do with the best interests of the children, but for the goal of having to pay a reduced amount of child support that might result. In most cases, the court will order the off-set split custody amount.
A non-custodial parent, a term used for the other parent who does not have the sole custody, as the other parent in a sole custody situation is often called, may seek to have “access” or “visitation rights” to the child. While this gives the non-custodial parent and child an opportunity to spend time together, that parent is not, without more from the court, entitled to make decisions for the child beyond the provision of day-to-day care.
There are certain cases when a parent cannot be left with a child as he/she cannot be trusted with their patience, thier ability to care for the child, or to appropriate with the things they may say to the child. In such cases, where a parent and child cannot, or should not, spend time together alone, the court may order supervised access. Sometimes the need for supervision may be responsive to the needs or best interests of the child.
Supervision can be by a family member, friend, other interested and trustworthy third party, or by a professional, as the court may determine.
The Winnipeg Children’s Access Agency (WCAA) is a low-cost and professional alternative that works well in many of these kinds of cases. The WCAA requires the parents to agree to a set of terms and conditions which include the parents arriving at their facility separately. Visits can last up to 2 hours, but may be terminated earlier in the supervisor’s discretion. The supervisor’s role is to observe and provide limited guidance where appropriate. They do make notes of the visits which can be subpoenaed to court if required. The cost to the parties is minimal. There is usually a waiting list.
Physical care and control or parenting time is the practical side of joint custody; that is, the determination of where the children will live. The division of physical custody or "care and control" or "parenting time" can be agreed upon or ordered by the court. It may be as simple or complicated as the parties’ lives and the best interests of the children dictate or require. The division of the children's time with each parent may be simply put "as the parties may agree" or can be highly structured down to the minute details of time, who picks up and returns the children, where, what will be sent with them, and so on and so on.
Complex arrangements require flexibility, consideration, and compromise to work well. For those who do not get along, parties may try to program their lives and the lives of their children in exquisite detail. The courts are usually reluctant to impose complicated solutions on families without agreement, but hard cases demand decisions.
When cohabiting parents disagree about decisions respecting their children, a power struggle may ensue. The dispute will get resolved in the style that family uses, but no one, short of the child coming into the child welfare system for reasons of neglect or abuse, or coming into the arena of the criminal law, will have the authority to tell them what to do. Often enough, however, these kinds of conflicts figure in the breakup itself.
On separation, the power to make decisions is often hotly contested. In reality, however, there are few such decisions that most parents can’t or won’t work out.
Typically, disputes about decisions will be found in matters of education, health choices and activities. There is often an intersecting interest in relation to those decisions, such as a parent’s time and involvement or the cost of the choice. For example, the choice of enrolment of a child in a sports program, such as hockey, might impose on both parents’ time and responsibilities and the cost can be prohibitive. There are often child support considerations under The Child Support Guidelines for what are known as Section 7 expenses. See the Fishman Beley Primer on Child Support.
Courts can divide decision-making or give it all to one parent, but will usually insist on meaningful consultation or mediation before the decision is made and will generally allow such a dispute to be adjudicated by the court, if necessary.
Parents are generally entitled to information about their children. Unless the court orders otherwise, the non-custodial parent has the same rights as the sole-custodial parent to obtain school, medical and other reports respecting the child. At Fishman Beley, we will often recommend to our clients that they ensure the child’s school, daycare, or other service providers – including doctors, dentists and counsellors – are aware of the parental separation and are instructed to provide duplicate notices and reports.
The right to obtain information is not the right to demand the generation of reports and the like, however. That may require the consent of both parents or may fall to the decision-making parent’s authority.
A major issue for many parents in modern society where the adult population is increasingly mobile – usually for work, but also for other personal purposes – is what happens to the children when one parent wants to move to another city, province or country.
The court can put terms, conditions or restrictions on custody. Often the right to move with the children out of the province or even significantly far away from the other parent within the province is restricted or at least suspended pending an application on that behalf.
The issue has been dealt with by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of Gordon v. Goertz. Essentially, the court held that the issue was to be decided on the best interests test, and when challenged by an application by the other parent, the sole custodial parent did not have an automatic right to remove the child.
Recent amendments to the Divorce Act set out obligations on the moving parent to give specific notice in timely ways of their intent to move and their proposal for ongoing parenting time. The court is tasked with additional factors as part of the best interests test, namely, to consider:
One of the Divorce Act amendments prevents the court from considering the double-bind question of whether the parent would move with or without the child. While some cases already have decided that the question is unfair, that objection is now the law.
The mobility regulations under the Divorce Act clarify what a “move” or “relocation” means, as follows:
The Divorce Act puts new emphasis on encouraging the parties to negotiate their Parenting Plans which can be incorporated into their Parenting Orders.
Parenting Plans can be comprehensive and detailed. The experienced lawyers of Fishman Beley will help you construct your personalized Parenting Plan. Parenting Plans will often include provision for the following:
The forgoing is a simple list which is by no means exhaustive. There are hundreds of sample parenting plans and templates on the internet. The Department of Justice has an online Parenting Plan Tool which is a good start.
The trick to a good Parenting Plan is to form a balance between the needs of the family, as a whole, and abiding by the laws. The lawyers at Fishman Beley have the experience to help you with your parenting plan.
When parents divorce and settle their custody and visitation issues between themselves, it is not only the parties and children who might be affected. Important relationships that the child might have with grandparents, other family members, other care-givers or other persons can be altered with profound effect on the child.
Where, upon separation or divorce, one or the other parent determines that they will no longer honour those relationships, or because a parent may no longer have their own parenting rights to share with those significant others, those relatives or third parties may need to seek the court’s assistance.
Current provisions of The Child and Family Services Act of Manitoba allow a grandparent, step-parent or other member of a child's family to apply for visiting rights to a child. The test under that provincial statute requires consideration of what is in the best interests of the child and consideration of the grandparent/grandchild relationship, the potential benefits to the child, the nature of the relationship, and consideration of the mental, emotional and physical needs of the child. The Child and Family Services Act also allows for the possibility that non-family members – such as a former babysitter, family friend or other person who might have established a significant relationship with the child – in an exceptional case – should have the right to access to a child.
Where there is a divorce proceeding, applications can now be made by third parties for a "contact order", but only with leave of the court. The contact may be carved out of one parent's time, may be conditional or even supervised. It may deal with special events, the right to receive gifts and communicate, or perhaps that the applicant receive pictures and information about the child.
Contested custody cases can be lengthy, bitter and expensive, so the courts and the frequently updated legislation attempt to encourage and require the parties and lawyers to undertake serious efforts to explore alternate means of Dispute Resolution.
Children are not welcome witnesses in court. The court will usually prohibit a minor child from testifying, notwithstanding how adamant a parent might be about it, and most judges will not engage in meeting with the child in chambers as happened occasionally in the past. There is merit to hearing the child’s voice and to have unbiased objective evidence of the child’s well-being. One of the ways in which the child’s voice gets to be heard is through an assessment or Voice of the Child Report.
Assessments are typically performed by professionals in social work or psychology with the goal of providing expert evidence to the court about the children’s best interests, the capacity of the parents in their parenting role and what living arrangements might be seen as optimum.
Typically, assessors will familiarize themselves with the court file, spend time with the parents, see the children in the care of each parent and – subject to the child’s age and maturity – may interview the child on his or her own.
Usually, each parent and the children will be observed in their home. Some assessors will use psychometric testing as an aid and most will speak to a selection of collateral third parties and other professionals involved in the child’s life, usually as nominated by the parties.
After the interview and data gathering process is completed, a report setting out findings and recommendations is prepared. These sometimes run to 100 pages or more. The maker of the report can be cross-examined at the trial. It is important to note that the court is not bound to follow the recommendations contained in an assessment.
Assessments are available at no cost to the parties, on court order, when undertaken by the Family Conciliation Service, now known as The Family Support Service, which is connected to the court. It currently takes about 6 to 9 months from the time the assessment is ready to be undertaken – there is usually a lengthy wait list – until completion.
Motions for the appointment of a family evaluator are now made to a Master of the court. The Master will need to be convinced that an assessment is required. While the appointment of Family Conciliation is usually general in nature, the Master can order a more specific type of assessment.
The court will sometimes order a "focussed assessment", to deal with one or more discrete issues, such as schooling, or religion, or a medical issue.
Where there is a need to determine the child's wishes, the court can order a Brief Consultation, also known as a "Voice of the Child" report. See below.
The parties may wish to hire a private professional, such as a social worker or psychologist, to perform the assessment, and one or both of the parties will be responsible for the costs, either by agreement or by court order. These private assessments, while having the advantage of giving the parties greater control over the process, and may be quicker, but can cost thousands of dollars depending on the assessor and the work involved. Some private assessors will have psychometric testing of the parties or children as part of thier process.
The Family Conciliation Service will also undertake a Brief Consultation with the parties and children, upon an appropriate court order, which will usually be completed within 30 days.
This form of assessment is usually limited to office interviews and to older children, typically at least 11 or 12 years old. It’s often employed where the parties are unable to agree upon what the child is actually saying about his or her preferred living arrangements. Often referred to as a "Voice of the Child Report", it is important to note that there is no rule that says a 12-year old child has the right to decide where he or she will live. This is one of the more popular and destructive myths in family law.
Where there is a dispute on custody or care and control issues, the court requires that the parties complete the parent information program called For the Sake of the Children. A completion certificate will be filed in court.
This program is run by the Family Support Service attached to the court. These are the same personnel who perform court ordered assessments and brief consultations.
Parents will typically attend two separate sessions each and will not attend at the same time as the other. For persons living outside an area in which the program can be accessed, there is a DVD version which can be made available. Since Covid, the sessions are given on-line and can be accessed here. Information about the course is available by calling 204 945-7236.
The program outlines good parenting practices on separation and gives the parties guidance on what is seen as typical or advisable for children of various ages and stages.