California divorce court rules that spouses payments to care for his elderly mother was legitimate family debt and was not to be deducted from his share of marital property.
You Owe Them. court says take care of your elderly parents.
Published by Sacramento Bee in EDITORIALS section, Page B4 – Nov. 24, 2006
All those baby boomers with aging parents should pay close attention to a recent court decision in California. An appeals court ruling in a nasty divorce in Placer County highlights the little known but significant legal obligation of adult children who, to the extent they are able, should support their indigent parents.
In the case before the appeals court, a divorcing wife disputed her husband’s right to deduct from the proceeds of her share of community property the $12,000 he had spent to support his elderly, infirm mother. The wife called the support payments “an unauthorized gift of community funds.” The trial court commissioner agreed with her. “You know as well as I do,” Placer County Commissioner Colleen M. Nichols said in the opinion, “that you’re under no legal obligation to pay for your parent’s expenses just as you’re under no obligation to pay for your child’s expenses once they are over the age of 18.”
But in a unanimous ruling that is binding on courts across California unless overturned by the state Supreme Court, the 3rd District Court of Appeal emphatically disagreed with Nichols. “Though not commonly known,” Associate Justice Vance Raye wrote for a three-judge panel, “California is one of many states that have enacted filial responsibility laws imposing on adult children obligations akin to those imposed on parents with respect to minor children.” With the exception of those circumstances where parents were known to have abandoned a child, the justice noted, “neglect of an indigent parent is punishable as a misdemeanor.” Penal Code Section 270c specifically provides that “every adult child who, having the ability so to do, fails to provide necessary food, clothing, shelter or medical attendance for an indigent parent, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
Citing that law in the Placer divorce case, the justices ruled that the expenditure of $12,000 for the indigent mother’s care was a legitimate debt incurred by the husband during the marriage. He did not have to reimburse his former wife for it.
In an ideal world, neither laws nor courts would be needed to force parents to care for their children or adult children to care for needy parents. We live in a world that is far from ideal, as proved by the parade of disputes in our family courts. If nothing else, the ruling of the 3rd District Court serves as a reminder, if not a warning, that the ties that bind parent to child and child to parent can never be fully severed.