Spare change

The Law & Deadbeat Parents

Tracey Columns

Over a recent cup of coffee with a friend, I was describing last week’s column. The letter represented three adult children who found themselves in a very difficult situation. Their parents, who have always been terrible money managers, opted for retirement at sixty. It was a decision that seems to have made no financial sense, given their debt, lack of retirement income except for Social Security, and their out-of-control spending habits. Now, just a few years later, these two were asking each of their children to make monthly contributions towards their support.

The offspring were understandably resentful of their parent’s request, explaining that this situation is a direct result of their parent’s credit card misuse, as well as their refusal to seek part time work, which both parents were physically capable of doing.

No matter how I looked at it, I couldn’t begin to have too much sympathy for these two adults. (There was no mention of extenuating circumstances for their financial situation, i.e. a health crisis or loss of job(s) due to the economy.) It struck me that these two could be helping themselves in a number of different ways, such as seeking part time work or refusing to make purchases they couldn’t afford on credit cards they apparently can’t pay off. Instead, these two able-bodied adults were expecting their children to fill in the gaps that they had created for themselves.

In the end, I advised the three children  that their parents needed to start showing some responsible behavior before they should even begin to consider supplementing their parent’s income.

My coffee companion, loyal friend that she is, thought my advice was spot on. However, we both agreed that some readers might think I was off of my rocker. We placed a friendly bet as to when I’d receive the: “how can you possibly think it’s acceptable for those children to turn their backs on their poor parents?” email!

Yet, as we worked our way deeper into this unique situation, she wondered what her brother, a family law attorney might think? Were their legal rights and/or responsibilities for either side of this equation? That got my wheels turning. What exactly are children obligated to do in this kind of situation? Later that day I did some digging and frankly, I was surprised by what I learned.

I discovered the world of “filial responsibility laws.” The majority of these laws we are all well aware of, as these are statutes that require certain adults to care for or financially support different family members. (Think child and spousal support.) But more than half of the states also have laws that require offspring to provide for their “impoverished” parents. (In some states, this legal obligation can also be extended to other relatives.) To be found in violation of these laws can result in both civil and/or criminal consequences for the adult children or other relatives involved.

The grey area seems to be establishing if a parent is “impoverished.” While my research was far from exhaustive, I could only locate a few judgments for parents to receive support from their children for basic needs. Instead, there may be a growing trend for enforcing these particular laws when state programs or institutions are trying to get reimbursement for services. (For example, a parent ends up in a nursing home and can’t pay, thereby making their child directly responsible for their care.) However, given the difficulties in determining these cases, it appears as though legal action is infrequent at best.

With this new information in mind, let’s get back to the children of our deadbeat parents. It’s clear that I need to amend my advice to them to read as follows: in addition to withholding financial support until your parents begin to make significant changes on their own, I think you three might also need to do a little homework about the law. While common sense suggests you wouldn’t be liable for their support … we all know that sometimes common sense can get lost in a court of law. Good luck!

(Click here to return to The Second Half online archives)