The Family Responsibility Office: What Role Does It Play in Family Law Disputes?
Family Responsibility Office (FRO): these three words conjure up more emotion than most other three- word combinations, at least in family law circles.
Few agencies are criticized as much as the FRO. If you have a minute, do a search of the Family Responsibility Office and see what you find. If you eliminate the stuff that the Ontario government posts itself, “complaints” is the number one most common descriptor associated with the FRO.
Complaints Associated with the FRO
For instance, today I found:
- That the FRO has a 1.4 out of 5 rating on Facebook;
- A long explanation how the FRO seriously bungled a case;
- A Reddit post dealing with how the FRO messed up a credit rating;
- Calls for reform;
- Repeated use of the adjective “frustrating”.
And this is not just limited to Ontario. Search the internet and you will see all kinds of complaints from virtually every jurisdiction in North America complaining about the FRO, or the local equivalency.
Some complaints are minor and routine. Waiting too long on hold. Carefully filled in forms lost or rejected. The person on the phone couldn’t speak English. In other words, the same complaint you hear when applying for a driver’s license renewal.
Other complaints evoke tragedy. Payors committing suicide out of despair. Recipients left destitute due to lack of collection.
But the truth of the matter is that most problems with the FRO [but not all] lie not with the Office itself, but rather the mistaken belief of what the Office can or can’t do.
A Brief History of the FRO
Let’s go back a bit.
Up until the mid-to-late 1980s, there was no government organization or department that was responsible for the collection and distribution of spousal support or child support. If a payor didn’t pay, it was up to the recipient to collect.
Inevitably, the recipient would have to go back to his or her lawyer and start enforcement proceedings. Basically, this meant opening up a file with the Sheriff’s Office and proceeding with a garnishment.
The term “Sheriff’s Office” conjures images of the wild West. While it is true that each County has its own Sheriff’s Office, that’s where the similarity ends. Think of a government office rather than a man on a horse. The basic job of the Sheriff’s Office is to enforce court orders, and mostly monetary.
Over the years, various governments felt that it was an unfair burden on a recipient to collect child support and spousal support. So, more government departments were created.
And tinkered with.
And altered by the government of the day, and subject to the usual political winds of change.
Or government cutbacks.
The FRO Now: Enforcing Support Orders
The latest version is now known as the “Family Responsibility Office”. And the job of the FRO is huge. It is their singular function to collect every single solitary support order in Ontario.
Read that again.
Every single solitary support order.
If that sounds like a lot, well, it is.
The Office collects something like $650 million per year. I have not independently verified that figure, but once you are dealing with some portion of $1 billion, it really doesn’t matter exactly how much. It’s a major, major amount of money. [As one US senator said, “If you add $1 billion here and $1 billion there, before you know it, you’re talking about a lot of money.”]
If a spouse has to pay $50 a month, the FRO is compelled to collect. Maybe the spouse is unemployed. Maybe the spouse is sick. Maybe the spouse is rotting in a Guatemalan prison. It doesn’t matter.
If a spouse has to pay $25,000 per month, the FRO is compelled to collect. Maybe the spouse is doing everything possible to avoid paying. Diverting income to a new spouse. Giving the FRO every excuse imaginable. It doesn’t matter.
There was one other thing worth pointing out. The FRO has exclusive authority. This means that the FRO, and only the FRO, has the ability to enforce support payments. A pure monopoly.
No private family law client in Ontario has the ability to enforce a support order. This means that no private family law lawyer in Ontario has the ability to enforce a support order.I reflect on the fact that family law is the only area of law of which I am aware that restricts, indeed eliminates, the ability to collect on a judgment. Personal injury lawyers can collect from insurance companies or the perpetrators of the malfeasance. Tax lawyers can sue the federal government. But family law clients are out of luck. They are stuck with a bureaucracy.
But in fairness, the FRO is a free to the user service, mandated by the government. So, I suppose that the recipients of support are getting a bargain in that regard.
Now let’s go back to the typical problems that a typical client has with the FRO.
Some Further Reflections on the FRO
Plain and simple, the FRO is a collection agency. Nothing more, but nothing less. The FRO can enforce only the court order or registered agreement that is before them.
They are not in a discretionary position, and they are not supposed to be.
Suppose you have a problem with a credit card bill. You don’t pay. The collection agency calls. How far do you think you will get?
The same with the FRO. They have their marching orders which is to enforce the payment that is on paper.
Life changes. Circumstances change. Spouses remarry. Children graduate.
It is not the function of the FRO to take those circumstances into account. Their job is to collect whatever is stated.
If the written document is no longer applicable, or no longer make sense, then the written document has to be changed. But that’s not what the FRO does.
Nor does the FRO interpret documents. If an agreement states that spousal support should be paid until someone retires, how are they supposed to know when the retirement is effective? If an agreement states that child support should start when the matrimonial home is sold, how are they to know when the home deal closes?
Now if all of this sounds ominous, there are some very good reasons why you want your support to go through the FRO. Of course, you never hear about these situations. For whatever reason, only the ugly situations seem to get press.
When to Contact the FRO
So, when do you want to use the FRO? Let me give you a few examples.
1. The FRO is mandatory in all court orders for support unless both the husband-and-wife agree in writing. Both spouses have to agree to opt out. So if your spouse simply will not opt out, you should simply accept the fact that you are going to deal with the FRO. They are the only game in town, so you should make the best of it;
2. Some people are more organized than others. It’s just a fact, and not a criticism. So, if you are required to pay support, you may be really good at making sure that the payment is made monthly or biweekly when you get paid. But what about temporary and short leaves of absence. Or very temporary layoffs. Will you really get caught up in your payments once the disruption is over? Maybe not? It is best to go through the FRO. The support will be deducted from your pay like income tax or CPP. You will not get seriously behind.
3. Some spouses can’t agree on the day of the week. The nice thing about the FRO is that it cannot be disputed how or when payments are made. All the payments are registered and accounted for. No need for an accounting. No argument about whether a payment was supposed to have been part of a birthday gift.
4. Like the MasterCard commercial says, some things are priceless. The FRO is a complete buffer, financially at least, between you and your spouse. They are the go-between. You do not have to deal directly with your spouse.
Limits on FRO Powers
And, alas, not all is wine and roses. Let me give you a few examples of what the FRO can’t do.
1. Absent an agreement, the FRO cannot change the amount of support in the order or agreement. It is not their function to provide annual reviews and adjustments. This is despite whatever documentation, in good faith, that you can give them. Their refrain is simply to say that it is their job to collect whatever the document says;
2. The FRO cannot calculate a payment. This arises primarily in child support cases. For example, an agreement or order can provide that the husband pay 60% of an orthodontic bill. It is a mistake to think that the FRO will take the invoice from the orthodontist and calculate how much should be paid. The same goes for university tuition, daycare and certain extracurricular expenses. There agreement or order must specifically state the dollar amount that is to be paid;
3. The FRO cannot determine when support starts or when support ends. Suppose for example that the husband-and-wife are still in the house together. They agree that the support will start after the house is sold. Unless both parties confirm with the FRO the date in which the support is supposed to start, the order or agreement has to be clarified. In the same way, if spousal support is supposed to change if and when a wife completes her retraining, the order or agreement must reflect the precise date as that event occurs.
The challenges of marriage and family can sometimes lead down unexpected paths. No one usually expects to find themselves contemplating divorce, or having to fight over related matters including spousal support or child support. However, unfortunately, it does happen, and if and when it happens, it helps to know where to turn.
If you are in need of family law advice, you need a lawyer with the insight, and the experience to know what strategy works best based on the available information. One strategy won’t work for all cases, and a lawyer with true insight will find the strategy which works best for you.
If you would like to learn more about the FRO, or have questions that were not answered above, please reach out to me at 519-800-1039 or contact us online.