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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