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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