Suing Your Children

During a recent teaching trip to Singapore I learned about the country’s fascinating Maintenance of Parents Act, which went into effect in 1996.  The law allows Singapore residents over 60 who are unable to maintain themselves adequately to claim maintenance from their children, either in a lump-sum payment or in the form of monthly allowances. Cases are heard by a special tribunal that decides whether payment should be made and how much it should be, based on criteria including the parent’s financial needs and the child’s earning capacity and other financial obligations.

The maintenance claim may be dismissed if the children can prove that they were abused, neglected, or abandoned by their parents when they were young. The law stipulates that only the basic amenities and physical needs of the applicant including shelter, food and clothing are required. The maintenance is not linked to the parent’s previous standard of living.

Here’s how Walter Woon, professor of law at the National University of Singapore, who proposed the law as a member of Parliament, explained the moral perspective the law was based on:

“[The law] will reaffirm the notion that each individual has a responsibility to look after his parents. It is not society’s responsibility. Singapore is still conservative enough so that this idea is not objectionable to most people. The bill reinforces the traditional values of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism as well as Confucianism. It doesn’t hurt a society now and then to be reminded of what its core values are.

“Second, and more important, it will make those who are inclined to shirk their responsibility think twice. As things stand, if a person asks family members or clergymen or the Ministry of Community Development to help him get financial support from his children, the most that they can do is to try to mediate. The trouble with mediation is that the mediators have no teeth. They can exhort, preach, persuade, cajole, plead and even beg. But when push comes to shove, there is currently no way that a son can be forced to support his parents.

“But if there were a legal remedy, that would be a different matter. To be sued by one’s parents would entail a massive loss of face. It would be a public disgrace. The hand of the conciliator would be immeasurably strengthened. It is far more likely that some sort of amicable settlement would be reached through private mediation if the recalcitrant son knows that the alternative is a public trial. So, one hopes that the fact that such a law exists will make it unnecessary for it to be invoked.

. . . The law cannot legislate love between parents and children and husbands and wives. All the law can do is provide a safety net where morality proves insufficient. [It] won’t affect the people who already are supporting their parents, not only with money but, it is hoped, with love and respect. The only ones who need worry are those who aren’t living up to their moral obligations. If the law helps even one poor person, I think the effort is worth it.”

Twenty-nine states in the U.S. have similar laws, but whereas Singapore (population 5.3 million) has 100-to-150 cases per year, the U.S. laws are almost never enforced. When Pennsylvania court last year held John Pittas responsible for his mother’s $93,000 nursing home bill, it made the news.

His mother had been hospitalized after an automobile accident and moved back to Greece without settling her bill. There was no suggestion that he had been neglectful. The nursing home wanted to collect, and Pittas was held liable. The few cases that have come up in the U.S. are like Pittas – nursing homes or hospitals trying to collect bills. There are no cases I’m aware of where parents have sued for support.

Many years ago, in what turned out to be the last year of my father’s life, I persuaded him to move from Florida to Massachusetts, where I live. He was blind from macular degeneration and needed a supportive living environment — ultimately one with 24-hour nursing care available. I engaged a geriatric care manager to help me (his only child) scope out the options.

She told me about maneuvres that would allow him to receive Medicaid support. In the spirit of Professor Woon, I did not want to do that. The care my father needed was costly, but I could afford it, and it seemed obviously wrong to ask my fellow citizens to support him. If I had refused to pay for his support I would have regarded it as fair for Medicaid to come after me, as Professor Woon wanted the authorities to be able to do in Singapore. It didn’t seem right to me that you, through your taxes, should have had to pay for my father’s care if I was able to provide for him.

James Sabin, M.D., 73, is an organizer of Over 65 and a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.





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