Payback time for parents

A B.C. case is the thin edge of a growing trend: parents suing their adult children for support

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

It’s been 16 years since Ken Anderson saw his mother. His parents moved out to B.C.’s West Kootenay region when he was 15, effectively abandoning him in the town of Osoyoos, 200 km away. (His dad, who worked for Labatt, had been transferred.) Ken was the family baby; by then, his four siblings had moved out. He dropped out of high school and took a job at the local Husky to support himself. He couch-surfed and, for a while, lived with a neighbour.

Eventually, a kindly boss let him crash in his basement. “The past is past,” says the 46-year-old father of two, who lives in Oliver, where he runs a logging truck business. He’s never been angry with his folks. But he’s never tried to rebuild the relationship either. His dad died years ago and in 30 years, he’s seen his mom Shirley fewer than 10 times. Imagine his surprise then, when one fine day he was served with papers announcing he was being sued for parental support.

Shirley, who is 71, has lupus, and has never worked. She and Ken’s father split up in 1990, and her support largely dried up when he died, soon after the divorce. She’s since amassed a credit card debt totalling $28,000 and is seeking $250 per month from Ken and an undisclosed sum from three of his siblings. (Neither she nor her lawyer were available for comment.)

As Ken found, every province except Alberta has so-called filial duty laws requiring adult children to support a parent who may be dependent due to age, illness or financial straits. They owe their existence to English “Poor Laws,” and date back to the Depression—before the creation of the modern welfare state. Since then, government has introduced the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security, recognizing its duty to look after the elderly. Filial duty laws should be abolished, says Vancouver lawyer Lorne MacLean. The B.C. Law Institute agrees. Three years ago, it began calling for the repeal of the law, calling it a stopgap response to the problem of poverty among the elderly.

In the ’30s, “seniors,” people aged 65 and older, made up less than five per cent of Canada’s population. Today, they total 4.3 million: roughly one in seven. Within five years, seniors—many struggling with rising costs of living and health care—will outnumber children under 15, putting profound strains on Canada’s health and home-care systems and pensions that, in many cases, have been critically underfunded for years. Already, Ottawa is weighing options to address a looming shortfall with the Canada Pension Plan.

Government, not children, should be responsible for their welfare, says Law Institute lawyer Kevin Zakreski. In 2005, Alberta repealed its parental support laws. England did away with its in 1948. But that’s a dangerous proposition, says Wendy Bernt, a family lawyer practising in Victoria. For some, she says, these statutes are a “last line of defence against abject poverty.” Raising kids is an expensive business, she adds. “If that’s where your income went, it’s hard, morally, to say parents don’t have a right to support.” Where moral and societal pressures aren’t enough to enforce family responsibility, she says, it may be necessary and proper for the courts to intervene.

Claims like Shirley Anderson’s have only recently come before courts in significant numbers, but more like them are expected to hit the courts in the coming decade. Queen’s University law professor Nick Bala says the bulk of claims (including six reported in B.C.) date to the past 10 years. And it’s not just in Canada. In Singapore last year, the number of parents filing for filial support doubled from a year earlier, to an annual 200 cases. Bala isn’t predicting a sudden flood of cases. Parents, even if destitute, will be reluctant to enforce the obligation out of shame. And unless “sonny boy’s a stockbroker driving a Lexus,” success isn’t guaranteed, says Surrey lawyer David Greig: a child must have means to pay support.

In August, the Andersons go to court. The judge will consider the children’s liabilities, responsibilities and net worth. Ken and his wife, Sherry, say they have little money saved for their own retirement.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., where some on the political right argue for wider enforcement of these laws to ease the growing strain on the public purse, third parties have begun using them to force adult children to pay their parents’ bills. Last year, Don Grant, an unemployed Pennsylvania dad wrestling with a mortgage and his daughter’s college tuition, was successfully sued by a hospital using the state’s filial statute when his 72-year-old mom skipped her bill. Grant, raised by his grandparents and estranged from his mom, didn’t even know she was in hospital.




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Payback time for parents

  1. I was surprised to hear there was a law where elderly parents could go after their children for financial support but thinking about it I don't see why not. Parents spend thousands of dollars and alot of time raising their children and the children should give back later if they are able and the parents need it.

    However, I noticed that in both stated cases the parents were estranged from their child for some if not all of their childhood years. There should be a stipulation where if the parent was not involved in the raising of the child or did not provide adequate financial support when the child was young, the adult child should not be forced to repay the parent later on.

    • "Raising kids is an expensive business…". Yes, certainly, which is why parent's are responsible for having and raising children within their financial means (both current and potential). Children are not born as retirement investments. If this were the case then we would have a booming population with generations of children burdened by their parents poor judgement and financial planning (ultimately continuing the preposterous cycle). Forced financial support (esspecially in this case) is absurd.

      Frankly, in this case Mr. Anderson should countersue for loss of financial support, basic education and emotional/physical abandonment from age 15 to the legal contractual age of 19. Question is; are there laws to protect children against poor parenting and poor parental financial planning? Doubtful.

    • Except that children already do. Who do you think is going to be burdened with paying for all the seniors health care, pension, and other benefits? That's right, the shrinking population of kids. Hell, let's not even mention the hundreds of billions in debt this generation racked up for the next to pay off.

      What we have here is a greedy, self-ceneted group of people going after their kids for money because they didn't do any kind of retirement planning themselves. When it comes to this generation, it's business as usual.

      • We will and are paying for our benefits and supplementary health care ourselves, thank you. Perhaps you did not know that all governments benefits are TAXED and means-tested! Perhaps you should stop voting for lefty governments who bring in unaffordable social programs and introduce more and more taxes. I never voted for nor approved of free universal health care, EI nor the guaranteed annual supplement.

        The Anderson case is unusual and pathetic, but don't take it out on everyone who is retired.

  2. Children being compelled to support their parents shouldn't even be compared to parents supporting these individuals during their childhood, because parents chose to bring them into this world while children can't possibly choose to be born into this world and they didn't form their parents' characters at all. Individuals have a right to free association and to lead their own lives as soon as they grow older as well. Sure, supporting your parents back is the moral thing to do, but I don't agree with making it into a law and not all acts of morality should be legislated. Such laws are impractical, esp. in an economy where the cost of living keeps on rising.

  3. There are many cultures that don't think twice about supporting their elders; usually it involves having an extended family living arrangement. I think this or some variation of it is the way family should function. I was paying rent, then bought a condo for my widowed mother, while my siblings support her in other ways.

    It would be interesting to see a study on how many folks in Canada, maybe even in comparison to the US and other countries support their senior parents in this way.

    Interesting to note how few people have resorted to this filial law. I'm sure the reasons range from families not needing to use the courts to provide support, to many seniors who don't know the law exists.

    The pervasiveness of an individualistic vs communal culture likely weighs in as well. I'll bet the U.S. has a higher incidence of adult children not supporting their elderly parents than Canada.

  4. This is insanity. If my deadbeat father ever tried to sue me for support, he'd be suffocated out of existence the same night.

  5. He should put her in that crooked nursing home in the United States that they profiled on 60 minutes. ;)

  6. Additionally people should SPAM this woman with hate mail over the absolute chutzpah this woman has that she needlessly and cruelly abandoned her child WELL BEFORE it was legal or moral to do so, and yet comes after him for money. She should see just how much outrage her selfishness has generated.

  7. In my extended family the responsibility for Family is a given.

    "If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever" (1 Timothy 5:8).

    We girls (and our kids and spouses as applicable) banded together to move our ailing parents North to the community where the majority of their children and grandchildren live, so that they could not only have access to the best medical care, but to family members who could lift the heavy weight from Mama of sole responsibility for Dad in his increasingly failing health. This was an expensive proposition in both time and treasure, and none of us are well off, but we all pitched in with whatever we could, decided in July it should be done, and in October it WAS done. Dad died a year later, and now we are looking after Mama. This used to be normal. Todays generation apparently believes that the world continues forever to revolve around only its self-centred, selfish, self. Wait until you kids find out that your own kids cant even pick you out of a line-up.

    • You had parents who took care of you well and properly. The man in the article didn't. Unfortunately, my father died young. My stepmom's a good person and I'd do whatever I could to help if she ever needs it. My mother, she's on her own. It's called reaping what you sow. It's called consequences. Parents who are abusive and neglectful to their children shouldn't be suprised to find out the kids want nothing to do with them.

  8. When will the intergrity of the only recourse people have to govern social justice seek to balance the scales that govern it? At times it appears as though the scope & application of two most basic tenets that govern the social milieu that coexist in 'truth' and 'justice' are tragically squandered and lost in translation.

    Any connected caring and loved child does not need a judge to tell them to love' thy' parent into adulthood.

    This is driven by monitary gain, nothing more and these people crawl out of the bowels of our society, these miscreant, despotic broken people leech off of anything that bleeds, even their own and its time for our Courts to apply the principles of "truth & justice" when fleshing out peoples fundimental rights and freedoms within the scope of the family relations act.
    The reprecussions that would flow from a desicion in favor of the parent in this case would be grand, calling into question the very premise of the family relations act itself, to state it mildly… the legal system in an of itself… best tread carefully and govern itself accordingly.

  9. I love how parents make the "decision" to have kids, often out of their own selfish need for love and affection, and then when the kids grow up it's "you're on your own buddy."

    Sure mom and dad, I'll support you, just after you repay the National Debt you left, sell your second income-generating investment property, and help pay off my student loans (which your generation barely had to use).

    Just another baby-boomer sense of entitlement. Just wait until my generation is tired of paying for your healthcare!

  10. I am 60 years of age.

    The day I would think of doing this to my kids is the day that I would rather die. There is no individual rights or responsibilities in this country. From 18 years of age, everyone should have the right to be free from frivolous legal BS. Everyone has the responsibility to look after oneself. And where this is not possible, then the government should provide only minimum living support.

    I know of one person who in 1991 was granted a government pension for life at 44 years of age that they most certainly did not earn directly themselves. That person married a much older well positioned spouse who died early. This person actually " retired " at 38 from a major oil company in Calgary.

  11. I have 2 selfish, self-righteous parents that I've never in my life heard a kind word from. Even though they are comfortably middle class, they hated to spend a dime on me as a kid, and I went several winters with holey sweaters and without a warm coat while they were buying themselves $80 pairs of shoes and 2 refrigerators constantly stocked with beer and wine for themselves. Then there was the constant belittling and tearing down of anything I did. I couldn't take it anymore and left the day I graduated highschool. Of course, helping me with my university education was out of the question–so I took care of that as best I could without their help.
    Now, I'm struggling to live and save for my own retirement in this crumbling economy and the rat ba#$^rds have the nerve to be bent out of shape that I don't devote time or $ to them.
    People like that are disgusting selfish pigs.
    Choke on it Shirley. I hope your kids win.

  12. This is my worse nightmare come true. My mother has had a stroke and suddenly, after a dozen years since I last saw her, she suddenly wants me to know she has had a stroke?
    I think that filial law goes both ways. if I am now legally responsible in her infirmary for her, then I too should be legally responsible for all her affairs and being able to choose what care she gets, where she lives and more.
    But knowing my aunts, uncles and cousins, that's not going to happen, even though I am her only child.

  13. I'm in tears over the mere idea my loser biological father who is a bum and mooches off women etc could come after me to pay for his lazy, worthless behind. I cut off all contact with him years ago, he had nothing to do with me when I was growing up etc.

    My mother fed me, kept a roof over my head, clothes on my back but refused to pay a dime for my education etc. I'm in debt with student loans. Meanwhile she has two cars, owns a house and has an apartment besides. It's her $, she can do what she wants with it, but similarly I have my own life now, an American husband etc.

    I've moved to the USA, far away from BC. Does moving countries shield me from this BS or not so much? There must be SOMETHING I can do to stop it from happening.

  14. We don't have this law in Alberta (so there is something about being a conservative province), but it just goes to show that the court system is totally out of sync with what needs to be done. They empower the criminals and neglect the victims. In this case Shirley Anderson is the criminal given the abandonment of her child. I notice she is only going after the children she thinks she can get money out of, if she truly thought this was a fair law she would sue all of her children equally. Also given that she is 71 years old, she is eligible for the OAS that my mother is able to live on, maybe not luxuriously but there are subsidized housing and additional subsidies available for seniors of low income. At least there are in Alberta, so I'm sure BC which is a more socialist province has equivilent if not more assistance.
    So why is she needing this money in the first place? Forget the moral outrage of her suing her children.

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