Legal obligations versus ethical obligations: Why should parents have to support their adult children?

We live in a culture that increasingly confuses ethical obligations with legal ones.  For example, I believe I am ethically obligated to help out those less fortunate and to contribute something to my community; however I would not force others to give to charity or do community service.  Others might believe it is their ethical obligation to serve their country in the military; I am glad few advocate that it become our legal obligation to serve in the military by reinstituting the draft.

I also believe that, to the extent we have the resources to do so, we have an ethical obligation to assist our adult children when they are young adults.  However this ethical obligation only goes so far.  What ethical duty of financial support should parents owe their young adult child if that child is a spendthrift, roustabout or rascal?  In such circumstances financial support of the adult child may be counterproductive–encouraging the adult child’s irresponsible behavior.

Considering merely the legal standpoint (as opposed to the ethical standpoint) what right does our law have to demand that parents support their “adult” children?  “Adult” under our law is a legal construct, not a metaphysical or biological one.   Our society has decided that when someone reaches a certain age that person, and not that person’s parents or legal guardians, has full autonomy for all decisions that person may wish to make.  Our society could make this “age of majority” age twenty-one (as many states used to do); it could make the age of majority age twelve.  But whatever age our law makes the age of majority is the age in which our law tells parents and children that the child now has complete autonomy over his or herself.  Any child old enough to be out of his or her parents’ legal control should no longer have the right to demand [that is, to make the law require] financial support from his or her parents.

If our society believes that it is important that physically or mentally disabled young adults be cared for, it is ultimately our society’s responsibility to provide for their care.  If our society believes that it is important for young adults to receive post-secondary educations, it is ultimately our society’s responsibility to assist them, when necessary, in paying for this education.  Finally, if our society believes that it is important for young adults who have not completed high school to finish high school, ultimately our society needs to provide any needed financial support to meet these goals.  While society can certainly look to parents [and their ethical obligations to support their young adult kin] to support such adult children, we should not act as though we have the right to demand it.   Should these things be important to us we should tax ourselves sufficiently and pay for these goals collectively.

Our South Carolina Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether it violates equal protection to allow the family court to order a divorced father to pay college support for his child when the family court could not issue a similar order if the adult child’s parents were still married.  I doubt the Supreme Court will agree with this father’s claim: many state supreme courts have heard the same argument and few have accepted it.  However, no state supreme court, that I am aware of, has undertaken an analysis of what business the state has in ordering parents to support their adult children in the first place.

The ever-increasing support obligations that our law imposes on the parents of adult children is but a symptom of a culture that is blurring the lines between ethical obligations and legal obligations.  To demand parents provide support to their adult children vitiates the concept of adulthood and is the familial equivalent of an unfunded mandate.

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  • I think you’re on to something here. I think our culture is sliding into a situation where we are expecting parents to take more and more (whether ethical or legal) responsibility for young adults with the unintended result that some “children” never (or almost never) actually grow into responsible members of society. Many ancient and even some modern cultures celebrate(d) various kinds of “rights of passage” such as Bar or Bat Mitzvah or other coming of age rituals after which time young men or women were expected to take on certain adult roles and responsiblities. We’ve basically stopped doing that – I think often to the detriment of the child, parent, and society at large. Newt Gingrich recently wrote either a book or article in which he advocated the abolition of adolescense, which he argued had been concocted during the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century as a way to keep the children of middle class families out of the factories. While I make no representation about the historical accuracy of that theory, I think he may be on to something in that adolescense often now stretches way beyond the pre-teen and teen years into adulthood. I have even heard of parents accompanying adult children into job and job performance interviews and advocation their causes as they likely had done with a middle school teacher. This can’t be good. But I digress. In the end, I think it is probably counterproductive in almost all cases for parents to continue to exercise financial responsibility for adult children and I completely agree that courts have no business deciding that parents have any such responsibility, whether the parents are together or separated.

  • This may very well be the new ‘hot’ family issue. Though I see this is a few years old. So now, in 2012 — times are tough. We have two adopted children. One adopted at 8, some learning disabilities but overall a pretty good guy. Also lied quite a bit. I had been a SPED Director and we had a stable home etc….. He had a great voice etc… sent him to top music school in NYC —- got into trouble ==== after 3 yrs. we said we’re through……. That included two summers in Italy — learning Italian, Master Classes etc… also a summer at the only college for Learning Disabilities — he did what he wanted….. married a Korean grad student === she needed a green card… he would not listen to us — tried for six years === he lied, lied, lied…..
    In the meantime his sister, 9 yrs. younger and adopted as an infant, thrived. Top student==== beautiful, sports, loving, etc…… No trouble at all! Until she was 17 and the end of her Sophomore yr….
    Hit with Bipolar === a mack truck couldn’t do more damage.
    Wild, crazy— a dozen hospitalizations— some for months. She resembled Linda Blair in the Exorcist==== if you never believed in the devil you would when you saw her manic…..Many rapes — system failed her…..Raped after 8 mos. hosp. when released to an apt. run by the Dept. of Mental Health….. 36 hrs. after arriving there.
    We encouraged her to sue…. found a lawyer through NAMI == in Boston… took 3+ yrs. but she did win in mediation about $75000= only received about $45000 after expenses………
    Ok —- in between she spent two years at a therapeutic farm in Vt.
    Met someone there and went with him to KY. She had been stable and able to start classes slowly at the comm. college.
    It has taken yrs. this all happened the past twelve yrs. She is 30 now and just graduated from Univ of Louisville with BSW, social work.
    Sadly she is not stable. We have paid and hellped every inch of the way ==== she appreciates it and has worked as hard as she could to be stable and get through school.
    So here is the situation today…. after six yrs of trying to connect with the older son we decided, through instinct and therapy, that having him in our lives was not good. Plus he was using. He did go in the Navy and seemed to have straightened out some but still remained a pathological liar== perhaps a sociopath. Now for the past eight yrs. he has slowly been trying to connect. More so the last four yrs. We’re not interested as we know his only interest is money. When grandparents we thought he adored got sick and died…. nothing from him…. no visit etc….He stayed in touch with no one even though just mad at us…. told himto call sister collect…. he never did. He is evidently married now with two kids. We have no interest in seeing him or having a relationship. I’m happy if he is doing well and have packed his things up in a few boxes….. He has just yesterday left two messages….. long ones… “=== sorry, etc… doing well, etc….will always keep trying to connect…. etc….” We plan to call him and to give him his things. What has upset us is he has moved to Maine near where we have a summer place…… and has been seen here when we have been away. He is 39. We feel nothing for him and all of our emotional strenghth has gone to his sister.
    Now the sister……. she is not stable. She didn’t want anyone to know she had bipolar so told no one at college. She broke up with the fellow she was with. She sees a dr. who is also her therapist… but only once a week and she usually shows her good side. So here is the
    situation. She is now 30. She has had terrible things happen to her and for twelve yrs. we’ve done everything and still do a lot. However,
    she needs more intervention with her dr. now— she has started a Masters and we advised against it —- but she has …. so probably she will crash and burn anyway. She definitely has some PTSD from the rapes, hospitalizations etc…. her dr. has noticed….. showing more symptoms because of this….. While we had a nice time at her graduation she no longer feels the need to listen to us. She is on a form of disability–auxiliary dependent based on my husband’s full social security…. so she does get medicaid.
    We do subsidize her income –pay tuition, apartment, car etc… She is frugal, careful, doesn’t do drugs or drink. That’s great but she is slipping==== So after almost two years of pretty much going slowly down hill and not wanting to work with her doctor about it we find ourselves with the same feelings we have with our son. Yes, what she has accomplished in amazing in light of all she has gone through. But now, only she can help herself and it is killing us seeing her slowly lose all that she had lost. But she KNOWS she must work with her dr. etc……. So here again we are feeling that we want, with her, limited contact. When she is angry– later in the day it is like talking to a monster….. we hang up!
    So here you have two different situations both with adult children The older one sucking up to get back into the “fold” strictly for $$$ we’re sure…. and the younger one fighting to get away and in the process slowly undoing all she has done……. and refusing to take our suggestion….. “talk to your dr., take time off……do this right’… So at the end we will help her financially as much as we can which sadly isn’t much for what someone needs now….. but find ourselves backing away emotionally.
    I shutter to think of any court requiring parents to have to do anything for their adult children. That is not healthy and it’s just not right.

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