Friday, April 29, 2022
As is true with several U.S. states, Virginia has a filial support statute that can obligate adult children to support their parents. The key language of VA Code Ann. Section 20-88 provides:
It shall be the joint and several duty of all persons eighteen years of age or over, of sufficient earning capacity or income, after reasonably providing for his or her own immediate family, to assist in providing for the support and maintenance of his or her mother or father, he or she being then and there in necessitous circumstances.
If there be more than one person bound to support the same parent or parents, the persons so bound to support shall jointly and severally share equitably in the discharge of such duty. . . .
This section shall not apply if there is substantial evidence of desertion, neglect, abuse or willful failure to support any such child by the father or mother, as the case may be, prior to the child's emancipation or, except as provided hereafter in this section, if a parent is otherwise eligible for and is receiving public assistance or services under a federal or state program. . . .
There are few modern cases applying this law. In Peyton v. Peyton, an "unreported" Virginia chancery court decision from 40 years ago, the court applies the law to obligate one brother to reimburse another brother $8,000, representing half of the past out-of-pocket expenses for their mother's care in a nursing home. A careful reading of the Peyton case reveals one of the challenges of applying filial support laws when used to collect "back" expenses; here the second son was willing to pay a portion of their mother's monthly costs going forward but he was not successful in arguing a statute of limitations should apply to prevent liability for multiple years of back claims.
As with other American states that have had forms of filial support laws, Virginia's law was enacted as an alternative to public welfare laws because the common law generally found no legal duty for adult children to support indigent parents. But, in Virginia, again as in most American states, the filial support laws are largely dormant, misunderstood or ignored, especially after Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid laws were enacted on a federal level beginning in the 1960s.
Virginia's statute was amended decades ago to restrict use of the law by the state to seek reimbursement for its costs in providing public services (such as "medical assistance" a/k/a Medicaid). However, unlike the filial laws of most states, Virginia's law permits criminal prosecution as a misdemeanor for "any person violating the provisions of an order" of support under this statute, with a fine not exceeding $500 or imprisonment in jail for up to 12 months. I find no reported cases of criminal enforcement actions.
Recognizing that other states (including neighboring Maryland in 2017) had recently taken formal action to repeal filial support laws as outdated or impractical, Virginia Senator Adam Ebbin introduced 2022 Senate Bill 389 to repeal Virginia's law. Senator Ebbin's bill passed with no dissenting votes in the Virginia Senate. The final vote in the Virginia House, on March 11, 2022, supported repeal with 81 voting in favor, and only 16 members voting in opposition to repeal. In other words, repeal was not a controversial measure; rather it appeared to be part of an attempt to clean-up hoary laws, and it attracted strong bipartisan support.
Nonetheless, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin (sworn into office in January 2022) vetoed the repeal on April 11, 2022. His reasoning for preserving filial support laws is unique, at least in my 20-some years of experience researching filial support laws (see e.g., Filial Support Laws in the Modern Era: Domestic and International and International Comparison of Enforcement Practices for Laws Requiring Adult Children to Support Indigent Parents, 20 Elder Law Journal 269 (2013)).
The governor's veto statement explains:
"Primarily, the Commonwealth's filial responsibility law supports those who care for their elderly parents. In establishing a bankruptcy budget, the court allows for necessary and reasonable expenditures and the repeal of Section 20-88 could prevent an individual from covering these expenses within the budget of their debtor. For those undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, there is a grave risk of unforeseeable and unintended consequences, which may harm people going through some of the most difficult times in their lives."
On the one hand, in today's torn asunder political scene, no one should be surprised that a newly elected governor of one party would be vetoing legislation sponsored by a member of the other party -- and that is true here, with a Republican governor vetoing a bill proposed by a Democrat.
But what about the proffered reason for the veto? Virginia's law does not "primarily" support those who care for their elderly parents. Rather, it creates an obligation for adult children. Is there any precedent for a theory that Virginia's filial support law permits some type of sheltering of assets for a debtor in bankruptcy court, to provide a means of financial support for the (also) destitute parent? Certainly I find no modern cases on Lexis or Westlaw suggesting such use or even a need for such use.
There is a reported case from 1938 in Virginia. In Mitchell-Powers Hardware Co. v. Eaton, 198 S.E. 496 (Supreme Court of Appeals, VA 1938), the court addressed a question of whether a transfer of valuable stock by a debtor to his sister was voidable as an invalid gift. Was this an invalid attempt to defeat a legitimate creditor's lien against the asset? The court recognized that under Virginia's predecessor version of Statute 20-88, the debtor "could" have an obligation to assist his sister in the care of their elderly mother. The appellate court remanded the case for a jury determination of whether the mother was actually destitute and in need of the son's financial support. (The sister had further transferred the stock in question onward to the debtor's son). This hardly seems a persuasive case for characterizing filial support laws as necessary "support for those who care for their elderly parents."