Two North Bay grandparents are being sued for child support in a case that could be precedent-setting.
Denise Deforge and Conrad Hunter will be in court Friday to fight a claim that they should pay $760 a month to the mother of their 10-year-old granddaughter.
She is also seeking $47,000 going back to when the girl's father, Deforge and Hunter's son, died in an accident in 2013.
"We love her to pieces, and we'd do anything for her. But she's not our child. It's not our job to pay child support payments," says Deforge.
'Never ever should a grandparent be obligated to pay child support because they want to do what's best for their grandchild."
The lawyer of the mother wouldn't comment on the specifics of the case before the trial, but did say he plans to argue that Deforge and Hunter have been more than grandparents to this girl and should pay child support.
Toronto-based family lawyer John Schuman says the case could set a precedent because of the expanding rights of grandparents in custody matters and the grey area that currently exists.
'Open up the floodgate'
Grandparents are very occasionally required by court to make child support payments when they are determined to "stand in for a parent," which in most cases occurs because they have custody of the child.
Hunter and Deforge did have emergency custody of their granddaughter for eight months about seven years ago by order of the Children's Aid Society.
They were also officially made parties to a custody dispute between their son and the girl's mother, even though they say they weren't present in court when a judge made that decision.
They were informed after the fact by their son and at the time didn't think it was bad to be officially involved in their granddaughter's case. But it has now possibly opened the door to child support.
Deforge says the mother has asked the court to cut off their access to the girl — who they see every second weekend — if they don't pay the child support.
"We miss our son so much and we look at our granddaughter and you see things in her and you can see her dad in her," she says.
"The thought of not being able to see her and be part of her life is one of the scariest things as a grandparent."
Hunter says he isn't sure what to expect from the court process, but he worries that they won't be the last grandparents to go through this.
"We worry about the outcome. We kind of got mixed emotions," he says.
"If we turn around and end up having to pay child support, that's just going to open up a floodgate."
New rights for grandparents
One of the reasons the case could have wider-reaching implication is the changes to the Children's Law Reform Act brought in last year thanks to a private member's bill by Algoma-Manitoulin NDP MPP Michael Mantha.
It gives grandparents standing at custody hearings involving their grandchildren and the right to get court-ordered access and visitation rights.
Mantha says his legislation is not related to child support, since that's governed by a different law, the Family Law Act.
"That's a decision that's going to be left up to the court to interpret," he says.
Schuman says giving grandparents legal standing and the ability to argue for access orders does open up the door to them being forced to pay child support.
"When grandparents get those orders, the flip side of those orders is a child support order," he says.
Both Schuman and Mantha say that at a time when families are far more complicated than when laws were first written, a total review of child custody and protection laws is in order.