What is the Alberta Maintenance Enforcement Program?
In Alberta, child or spousal support orders are often registered with the Alberta Maintenance Enforcement Program (“MEP”).
MEP is an Alberta government initiative that automatically enforces orders and agreements—which have been filed by the court—relating to child support, spousal support, and partner support. In certain circumstances, MEP can also enforce costs awards granted in family court proceedings.
Alberta MEP can collect both ongoing support and retroactive support. In order to enforce retroactive support, the court order will need to clearly state the amount of retroactive support owing.
In the event that a payor fails to pay, MEP will automatically keep track of the amount of arrears, and will take enforcement proceedings to collect them on behalf of the recipient.
How Does MEP Work in Alberta?
MEP will only enforce orders or agreements which have been filed with the Court, and registered directly with MEP. Either a payor or a recipient of support can register the order with MEP. Once this is done, MEP will handle the collection of any ongoing or outstanding accounts.
For example, if a parent stops paying child support, MEP will typically reach out to the delinquent parent and try to arrange for a timely payment plan. If they cannot reach an agreement, then MEP may take collections actions against the payor parent.
Under the Maintenance Enforcement Act, MEP has broad authority to enforce orders, and may take some or all of the following actions against a spouse who fails to pay support:
- Fine a payor parent.
- Charge interest on uncollected support payments.
- Garnish a payor’s wages—in other words, MEP will direct a delinquent payor’s employer to provide a portion of the payor’s wages directly to MEP.
- Seize the balance of a payor’s bank accounts, tax refunds, or retirement savings.
- Suspend a payor’s hunting, fishing, or driver’s licenses.
- Apply to Court to hold the payor parent in contempt. In rare circumstances, this could result in the payor parent going to prison.
Essentially, MEP will act as the recipient spouse’s collections agent, and will forward money which is collected to the recipient parent. Once MEP begins collections actions, it can be difficult to reverse. It is best to try and work out a voluntary payment plan before MEP takes action.
How Do I Apply for the Maintenance Enforcement Program?
Both the payor and recipient is eligible to register for MEP. In order to register a Court Order with MEP, they must meet three registration requirements:
- Either the recipient or payor spouse must currently live in Alberta.
- The person registering for MEP must pay or receive child, spousal, or partner support—that is, you cannot register someone else for MEP.
- The support order or agreement must be filed with the court, and must contain a clause saying that MEP may enforce the support obligations. This clause is automatically added to most support orders or divorce judgements.
If the criteria are met, then you will need to fill out and send the appropriate MEP form (along with a copy of the order or agreement) to MEP for processing. Typically, it takes a few weeks for MEP to open their file.
Parties may register for an online account with MEP, where they can access their documents and see their account balances.
How Do I Fight Alberta Maintenance Enforcement?
MEP enforces support orders—it does not make them.
In certain circumstances, MEP enforces orders even though the payor parent’s financial circumstances have changed. For example, MEP will continue to enforce “old” support orders even when the payor parent has lost their job, or earns less money. When this happens, you will need to bring an application in court to vary your support order or agreement.
In the meantime, you may need MEP to stop enforcing the “old” support order. The first step is to attempt to negotiate with a MEP collections agent to arrange for a temporary pause or reduction in payments.
If this is not possible, then you may need to apply for a Stay of Enforcement from MEP.
What is a Stay of Enforcement from MEP?
A stay of enforcement is a court order that temporarily prevents MEP from collecting money from, or taking further enforcement actions against, a payor parent. In most cases, a stay of enforcement applies to support arrears—not ongoing support payments.
A stay of enforcement lasts a maximum of 9 months. Typically, this is long enough for the Court to make a new court order. If not, you may need to apply for an additional stay of enforcement.
Remember, a stay of enforcement applies in Alberta, and therefore does not stop the federal government’s collections actions, which may include garnishing your unemployment insurance or your tax refunds.
Importantly, a stay of enforcement will also not force MEP to return your driver’s license if it has already been suspended. This can cause hardship for payor parents who require a license for work.
How to Apply for a Stay of Enforcement in Alberta
If you can no longer afford to pay your child or spousal support obligations, then you may be eligible for a stay of enforcement. There are two criteria to meet:
1. You must attempt to reach a payment arrangement with MEP before making a court application, and this attempt must have been unsuccessful.
2. You must have a valid reason for not being able to make your support payments, which may include the following:
- You are appealing the support order, and the appeal is based on valid legal grounds.
- Your financial circumstances have changed (For example, you lost your job or were severely injured and can no longer afford to make payments).
- You are in jail and have no savings or income with which to pay support.
- The validity of the order or agreement is in question (For example, the order was made in a different province or overseas).
- You are waiting on a division of family property which will provide you with a means of paying support.
The above reasons are not always accepted, and occasionally the court will consider other reasons that are not listed. It is best to speak with a lawyer before filing for a stay of enforcement. This application can typically be brough in Family Chambers, and in certain circumstances can be heard on an emergency basis.
How to Cancel Maintenance Enforcement
There are two ways to cancel MEP enforcement:
- Obtain a new court order which specifies that the order cannot be enforced by MEP. In this case, MEP may still enforce the outstanding balance on the previous court order (arrears), and will not close their file until their fees, service charges, or interest is paid. The Court rarely makes these orders.
- The spouse or parent receiving support can withdraw their order or agreement from MEP by filling out the appropriate form and sending it to MEP.
What are Subrogated Arrears?
In certain circumstances the Government of Alberta—also known as the Crown—will claim child support payments in restitution for welfare payments made to someone who is owed support.
For example, pretend John owes Alice $1,000/month in child support. John fails to pay, and as a result Alice collects welfare payments through Alberta Works. She collects for one year. In this case, the Crown may attempt to recoup these payments against John, because Alice only collected welfare because John failed to pay. In this case, John’s arrears would be subrogated to the Crown.
This can be an important consideration when applying to vacate child or spousal support arrears, because the Crown is less likely to negotiate a reduction in arrears—the government has staff lawyers who specialize in handling these sorts of issues. It is important to talk to a lawyer before attempting to vacate arrears, especially if you believe that your spouse received welfare payments in the past.
Speak to a Lawyer About a Stay of Enforcement from MEP
The Alberta Maintenance Enforcement Program is a powerful tool that can help parents collect child and spousal support from an unwilling payor. However, MEP can also cause payor parents financial hardship by enforcing court orders which no longer reflect changed circumstances.
If you have any questions, we recommend that you speak with a lawyer about MEP.
Feel free to call us at Morrison LLP at 587-758-1099 if you have any questions about a stay of enforcement—the first 30 minutes are free.
Although we are based in Edmonton, our family & divorce lawyers—and practicing mediators—are proud to serve much of northern Alberta, including the following communities:
- Edmonton & Area – Sherwood Park, Beaumont, Leduc, Fort Saskatchewan, St. Albert, Spruce Grove, Stony Plain.
- North – Athabasca, Morinville, Westlock, Gibbons, Barrhead, Redwater, Peace River, High Level, Fort McMurray.
- West – Drayton Valley, Edson, Hinton, Whitecourt, Devon.
- South – Camrose, Wetaskiwin, Millet, Calmar.
- East – Vegreville, St. Paul, Cold Lake, Bonnyville, Vermillion, Wainwright, Tofield.