Almost twenty years ago I was asked to speak to the State Conference of Trial Judges about what then seemed to be a fairly arcane subject; whether adult children could be sued for support by their parents or by individuals or entities providing their parents with necessities. Countless pages are written about the subject of parents and their duty to support minor children. But did the duty run in the other direction?
It turned out then that there is such a responsibility. According to Blackstone, this principle comes from Athenian law. 1 Wm. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England p. 442 (1765). As he described it just prior to the American Revolution, “….they who protected the weakness of our infancy, are entitled to our protection in the infirmity of their age; they who by sustenance and education have enabled their offspring to prosper, ought in return to be supported by that offspring, in case they stand in need of assistance.
The address to the judges on this concept seemed of little effect at the time as there was no recent litigation addressing this subject. But approximately two years ago I spoke with a fellow attorney from Bucks County, Maryjo Murphy, who said that nursing homes were starting to initiate suits against children for services rendered to their parents.
Monica Yan Kinney’s article in the July 12,2009 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer at page B.1. gives life to the Athenian law as applied in 21st century America. The article tells the story of a Havertown resident, Don Grant who was sued by his mother’s nursing home for $8,000 for services supplied to her. The ironic twist is that Mr. Grant’s mother does receive social security and a state pension but neither of these income streams is attachable by creditors. So, the nursing home sued Mr. Grant for his mother’s care. Mr. Grant professes that he is estranged from his mother and that he was raised by his grandparents. But that does not appear to be a defense today just as it was not in Blackstone’s day. In fact, as Judge Blackstone put it, the statute passed under Queen Elizabeth I provides that a child is “equally compellable, if of sufficient ability, to maintain and provide for a wicked and unnatural progenitor as for one who has shown the greatest tenderness and parental piety. 1 Blackstone p. 442 (citing Stat. Eliz. C.2.)
The Kinney article notes that Mr. Grant did not act promptly to appeal what was probably a district court judgment. It thus became final. But there is a Pennsylvania statute, 23 Pa. C.S. 4603 that provides spouses, children and parents of indigent persons have a duty to care for, maintain or provide financial assistance. Perhaps there is new law to be made here. The statute also states that the obligation is premised upon the payor’s financial ability and the obligation is not enforced where a child was abandoned by a parent for 10 or more years of the child’s minority. 23 Pa. C.S. 4603(a)(2). But the doctrine of parental responsibility does appear today to be a two way street. And the statute confers the right of suit on the indigent person and any other person or public agency having an interest in the care of the indigent person.