Buhai on Support of Adult Children with Disabilities
New on Westlaw (no free link yet): Sande Buhai, Parental Support of Adult Children with Disabilities, 91 Minn. L. Rev. 710 (2007). The introduction:
It is generally agreed that parents should (morally) and must (legally) support their children until they reach the age of majority. But, in what circumstances must parents support their children thereafter? This question becomes further complicated when the children are--or become--disabled. Are parents indefinitely obligated to provide financial support for their disabled children? If so, is this a purely moral duty or should it be legally enforceable as well? This Article examines these questions and posits an answer.
Consider two scenarios. In the first, a nineteen-year-old boy suffers injuries in a plane crash on his way home for Christmas. He is left a quadriplegic and is unable to support himself for the rest of his life. In the second, doctors diagnose a fifty-five-year-old woman as manic depressive, a condition that similarly incapacitates her for an indefinite period. Someone must care for these individuals. The most likely candidates are their parents or the State. Which individuals or institutions, however, must ultimately take responsibility? Should the answer depend on the nature of the disability or on whether the disability developed prior to the age of majority?
A recent California case pointedly raised these issues. David Culp, a fifty-year-old Stanford Law School graduate who practiced family law for nineteen years, filed suit against his parents. Culp claimed to suffer from depression and bipolar disorder, conditions which made him incapable of supporting himself. Section 3910(a) of the California Family Code states that "the father and mother have an equal responsibility to maintain, to the extent of their ability, a child of whatever age who is incapacitated from earning a living and without sufficient means." Concluding that Culp was in fact disabled and incapable of supporting himself, the California Superior Court ordered Culp's parents, James and Bertha Culp, to pay their son $3,500 a month indefinitely for living expenses.
The decision astounds many parents, who are stunned by the possibility that they might have to support their adult children indefinitely. One family law expert referred to the court's holding as a "landmark decision." Clearly, the Culp decision raises difficult issues. We naturally expect parents to care for their minor children until they are able to care for themselves. However, our reactions may change when the state forces parents to pay cash to apparently estranged adult children who become disabled in middle age.
In Part I, I explore the historical background of legally mandated parental duties to adult disabled children. Part II surveys the positions of the fifty states with regard to whether and in what circumstances parents should be required to support their adult children with disabilities. Parts III and IV then turn to normative questions. Part III explores the moral dimensions of the problem: from a religious or philosophical perspective, should parents support their adult children with disabilities indefinitely? I argue that although a parental moral duty often exists, society shares this duty, and therefore it is not absolute. The many difficult and personal considerations to which this duty is subject complicate the decision whether to support a disabled child. Part IV explores the problem from a normative legal perspective: should courts recognize a legally enforceable requirement that parents support their adult children with disabilities indefinitely regardless of the type of disability, the age of onset, or the family relationship? Section IV considers several theoretical and practical justifications that weigh heavily against the imposition of such a legal duty. For the foregoing reasons, I argue that the law should not impose an unqualified legally enforceable parental duty to support adult disabled children.
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