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April 5th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
A Manitoba woman has filed a lawsuit against the province claiming that, because the child support she receives is for the children, the province shouldn’t withhold that amount from her benefits check.  Read about it here (Winnipeg Free Press, 3/30/12).

Chantel Miyai has three kids, each of pre-school age.  Her boyfriend and the father of all the children pays her child support of $750 per month.   But Miyai doesn’t have a job, so the Province of Manitoba calculates that she’s entitled to monthly benefits of a little over $1,200 per month.  If she weren’t receving the child support, that’s what she’d get from the provincial government, but since she is receiving it, her government checks are reduced by the amount of the child support she receives.

That’s the way it’s done for all parents who receive child support.  Miyai, like the rest, has her benefits calculated in part on the basis of her income, and the province sees child support as income received by her.

Miyai and her lawyer see it another way.  They claim that she should receive the full amount of benefits plus the child support because child support is for the children, not her.  They cite a recent decision by the Canadian Supreme Court that child support is an entitlement of the children.

The case raises an issue that non-custodial fathers have been shouting about for many years.  They say some version of “The money I pay is for the children, but she doesn’t use it for that.”  They go on to recount the ways she uses money that they deem inappropriate and that sometimes the law does too.  But those arguments are always countered with the fact that basically, money is fungible; there’s no way to say that this dollar bought a diaper but this other dollar bought a beer.  In short, it’s all income to the mother irrespective of how she spends it.

But now, Chantel Miyai wants to have it the opposite way.  She wants a court to rule that, in some mysterious way, the money that goes into her bank account over which she exercises complete control and discretion, isn’t hers, but the kids’.  She makes this claim despite the fact that (a) the kids didn’t file an income tax return reporting “their” income (at least I’m assuming they didn’t), (b) the children don’t have a bank account into which the money is placed and (c) the children have no authority to spend the money received from their father.

In short, I don’t see what legal theory Miyai and her lawyer think will convince a judge that the money she receives from the children’s father shouldn’t be counted against her benefits.  After all, applying Miyai’s logic, if a husband receives $100,000 per month from his rich uncle, his wife could still receive social benefits from the province because she herself has no income, even though the two live together and the husband pays all the bills.  According to her, the $100k is “his” alone the same way the child support is “the children’s” alone.    

My guess is that the judge will pour this case out in a hearbeat.

Still, Miyai would have more of an argument if child support were treated the way many fathers rights advocates have called for.  In that way, child support would be paid to the state that would issue the custodial parent a debit card in the amount paid and on which only certain “children’s” things could be  charged.  So, food, clothing, medicine, school supplies and perhaps utilities, rent, etc. could be paid for with the debit card.  Other things could not be.  Even in that case, I doubt Miyai would win, but at least her argument would be a little more coherent.

The latest here on Chatel Miyai is that she’s withdrawn from the lawsuit (Winnipeg Free Press, 4/5/12).  She was the named plaintiff in a suit that claimed class action status.  It’s far too early in the case to know whether courts will allow it to be pursued as a class action, but as of now, the lawyer doesn’t have a plaintiff or a client.  Miyai’s rather strange reason for bailing out of the suit is that comments to the first article about the suit were rude and offensive to her.  Why she didn’t just avoid reading them, she doesn’t say.

But whatever the outcome of her suit, the concept of exactly what we mean by child support is worth considering.  What many fathers say is true; the money doesn’t always go to the child.  But there are ways to make sure that it does, the same way in which food stamps are only used for food.  The system of child support works as badly as it does for many reasons, but one stands out – it’s perceived to be unfair by non-custodial parents.  People comply with a system they think is fair more readily than they do one they think isn’t.  Debit cards are one way to improve the perception of fairness of the child support system.

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