Friday, October 9, 2015
In a convergence of my teaching, research and public outreach work, this week I've found myself in several overlapping conversations about whether adult children have obligations -- moral or legal -- to care for or financially support their parents.
This week, following my Elder Law Prof Blog post recommending Hendrik Hartog's fascinating book, Someday All This Will Be Yours, which I also recommended to my Trust & Estate students, I had a nice series of virtual conversations with Dirk about his book. What a thoughtful historian he is. We were talking about his research-based observation in the book about adult children and needy parents:
Adult children were not legally bound to remain and to work for their parents. Nor were they obligated to care for the old. Adult children were, paradigmatically and legally, free individuals, "emancipated," to use the technical term. . . . Furthermore, there was little -- perhaps nothing-- to keep an uncaring or careless adult child from allowing a parent to go over the hill to the poorhouse.
I asked, "what about filial support laws?" Turns out that was a timely question because Professor Hartog had just been interviewed for a Freakonomics Radio episode, "Should Kids Pay Back Their Parent for Raising Them?" The program became publically available, via podcast or written transcript, on October 8, 2015. In the interview Professor Hartog was asked to comment on filial support laws. He said in part:
Filial responsibility statutes are very weak efforts to ensure that the young will support the old if they are needy.... They rarely are enforced. Very, very, very, very rarely. So, you know, in a sense, every time they are enforced they become a New York Times article or they become an article in the local newspapers.
Professor Hartog was speaking in large measure from the perspective of his important historical research, including review of a body of case reports from New Jersey spanning some 100 years from the mid 1880s to the mid 1900s. And based on my own historical research, I would also say that in the U.S., filial support laws have been rarely enforced, although I would characterize the enforcement as often "episodic" in nature, especially after the growth of Social Security and Medicaid benefits. But...
I think the modern story is quite different in at least one state -- Pennsylvania. Part of this difference is tied to the fact that Pennsylvania's filial support law permits enforcement by commercial third-parties, including nursing homes, as I discussed in my 2013 article on Filial Support Laws in the Modern Era. Other U.S. jurisdictions with "modern" enforcement cases are South Dakota and Puerto Rico.
Indeed, I'm speaking on October 9, 2015 at the invitation of a Bench and Bar Conference in Gettysburg, PA about "The Festering Hot Topic" of Filial Support Laws in Pennsylvania. In the presentation, I report on controversies arising from recent, aggressive collection efforts by law firms representing nursing homes, as well the latest examples of successful enforcement suits by nursing homes and family members. I also analyze a disturbing additional claim, where Germany is seeking to enforce its filial support law to compel a U.S. resident to pay toward the costs of care for an ailing father in Germany.
Ultimately, I think that Professor Hartog and I agree more than we disagree about the lack of behavioral impact flowing from filial support laws. As demonstrated by Professor Hartog in his book, much care and support is provided by children, but flowing from complicated moral or personal inclinations, rather than statute-based lawsuits.
This seems a more realistic paradigm, although not without opportunities for misunderstanding and disappointment. But, as I often observe, the very last person I would want involved in my care would be someone who is doing it "only" because a statute -- much less a court -- is telling them they must care for me.