Does an Adult Child Have a Legal and/or Moral Duty to Become a Parent’s Caregiver?

caregiving disagreement between mother and daughterJane had a good childhood growing up in Virginia. However, she kept both an emotional and geographic distance from her mother for most of her adult life. The rift began after her parents’ divorce, which Jane blamed on her mother. They had only spoken a handful of times over the years. Jane’s mother missed many major milestones in the lives of her grandchildren, including their graduations and weddings. Now, Jane’s mother is aging and frail and has significant health problems. As a widow who is an empty nester and a retiree, Jane has the time to relocate and help her parent. But of course, Jane does not desire to do so. Yet, Jane is an only child and the only one available to help.

Does Jane Have a Legal Duty to Personally Care for Her Aging Mother?

Does Jane have a legal duty to move back to her hometown to take care of her aging and frail mother? Must she care for a mother who Jane feels was cold and neglectful of her and her children? The short answer is “no” — there is no legal duty to physically take care of an aging parent. But the longer answer is a lot more complicated. Keep reading to find out why.

Do You Have a Legal Duty to Personally Care for Your Aging Parent?

Perhaps you have had a rocky past relationship with a parent and perhaps you, like Jane, don’t feel inclined to take on the role of caregiver. If you aren’t emotionally close with your parent who needs care, why should you have to give up your comfortable life and usual activities to assume a caregiving role that requires frequent, hands-on contact and countless hours of assistance? The answer is you shouldn’t be required to give up your life and become a caregiver for your parent and, like Jane, you have no legal duty to do so. Nobody can force you to be a caregiver for a parent you’re not emotionally close to. That would be akin to involuntary servitude, which was of course outlawed by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865.

Do You Have a Legal Duty to Arrange for Care for Your Aging Parent?

Again, the short answer is no — you do not have a duty to arrange care for your agent parent. But what’s going to happen if you don’t? Most likely, a friend or neighbor, or perhaps you, will anonymously call Adult Protective Services (APS) to report an elder at risk and in possible need of care.  Then, the local government’s APS department will step in to investigate and possibly take control of your parent’s life. Your parent will be forced to get the care the government officials believe is needed, either at home or in a facility. They may also possibly force your parent into a guardianship and conservatorship with a public guardian or a local attorney from a list used by the court system in that jurisdiction.

What is Adult Protective Services?

APS departments exist in every local jurisdiction in the country and are required to investigate, and designed to help support, older adults who are alleged to be experiencing self-neglect and are in need of care. They also address allegations of abuse, third-party neglect, and financial exploitation, among other things. APS services can include medical, social service, economic, legal, housing, law enforcement, and other protective, emergency and short-term or long-term support services.

Do You Have a Legal Duty to Pay for Care for Your Aging Parent?

This is where things get more complicated, because depending on the state that your parent lives in, you may have a legal duty to pay for the care that your aging parent requires, even if the local government APS arranged for that care.

Approximately 30 states currently have filial responsibility laws, which require an adult child to pay for their parent’s needs, including medical care and living expenses, under certain circumstances. These laws differ in each state, but here is an example from Virginia’s statute:

§ 20-88. Support of parents by children.

It shall be the joint and several duty of all persons eighteen years of age or over, of sufficient earning capacity or income, after reasonably providing for his or her own immediate family, to assist in providing for the support and maintenance of his or her mother or father, he or she being then and there in necessitous circumstances. If there be more than one person bound to support the same parent or parents, the persons so bound to support shall jointly and severally share equitably in the discharge of such duty. Taking into consideration the needs of the parent or parents and the circumstances affecting the ability of each person to discharge the duty of support, the court having jurisdiction shall have the power to determine and order the payment, by such person or persons so bound to support, of that amount for support and maintenance which to the court may seem just. Where the court ascertains that any person has failed to render his or her proper share in such support and maintenance it may, upon the complaint of any party or on its own motion, compel contribution by that person to any person or authority which has theretofore contributed to the support or maintenance of the parent or parents.

But the statute goes on to provide a significant exception that might apply in your case: “This section shall not apply if there is substantial evidence of desertion, neglect, abuse or willful failure to support any such child by the father or mother, as the case may be, prior to the child’s emancipation or, except as provided hereafter in this section, if a parent is otherwise eligible for and is receiving public assistance or services under a federal or state program.”

This might apply to you if your parent deserted, neglected, abused, or willfully failed to support you while you were a minor. Unfortunately, this exception does not apply to Jane in our example, because she had a good childhood and only became distanced from her mother as an adult. Accordingly, Jane cannot be required to personally provide care for her mother, nor can she be required to arrange care for her mother, but she can be forced to pay for her mother’s care. Because of this filial responsibility law, Jane may wish to provide the care herself or arrange for her mother’s care to ensure that her mother is not being charged an excessive amount for the necessary care.

Please note the other important exception, which is that filial responsibility ends in Virginia once the parent is on Medicaid, so if nothing else, it would be behoove Jane to work with an experienced Elder Law attorney such as those at the Farr Law Firm, where our Elder Law experts help people every day to obtain Medicaid benefits as quickly as possible.

Click here for a link to all of our prior articles on the subject of filial responsibility.

Does an Adult Child Have a Moral Duty to Take Care of an Aging Parent?

This is a very difficult question, one more for philosophers than experienced elder care attorneys, and somewhat beyond the scope of this article, but I will try anyway. There can be beneficial aspects to caregiving in some circumstances:

  • Caregiving Can Heal Old Wounds: Caregiving may help heal old wounds if a spirit of consideration, moral obligation, and even forgiveness takes hold. You will always remember the past and may still bear scars from perceived mistreatment, but you may nevertheless feel inclined to act in a way that exemplifies your own moral code. If so, you are not alone. Many adult children who agree to care of a family member they dislike find some peace in the situation. However, not everyone chooses the path of caregiving.
  • Caregiving Might Align with Your Life’s Purpose: You may not be able to detach yourself from years of a parent-child relationship that was not loving and nurturing, but as an adult you can live a life of purpose and compassion, and caregiving for an aging parent might be part of this life purpose.
  • You Might Find Other Compelling Reasons to Be a Caregiver for Your Parent: It is truly a personal decision that you must feel right about. Don’t feel pressured to accept a role you fundamentally do not want or do not think you can handle. Caring for a family member you dislike requires a lot of emotional and physical work. You need to do what is right for your life. Here are some considerations when deciding whether to care of a loved one with whom you don’t have a great relationship:
  • It’s okay to admit that the relationship with your loved one was never an affectionate one. Morality, rather than sentimentality, comes in here.
  • If you decide to become a caregiver, you will need to find other compelling reasons to justify the hard sacrifices you make, such as helping a loved one who is in need and suffering.

If You Do Decide to Provide Care:

It is always your decision whether to provide care for an aging parent, but if you do provide such care, here are some guidelines you may want to follow:

  • Create boundaries: As an adult child, you are in control of how deep the relationship goes. If you feel uncomfortable spending lots of time with your family member, avoid taking on the direct care role. Remember, you do not HAVE to do anything. Your decision to get involved should be for your own reasons, such as setting a good example for your children or sharing human kindness.
  • Communicate your limitations: You set the rules when caring for a family member you don’t get along with. Don’t be afraid to honestly consider your motivations for providing care. Given that honest information, you can set boundaries and create support systems that meet your emotional and life needs. Open communication with your family member and service providers helps create healthy expectations for the relationship.
  • Try to separate past from present. It’s natural to think of someone as unchanging. But some people do change. Try not to interpret your loved one’s current behaviors by filtering them through your past experiences with them. This may set you up for misunderstanding what is really going on in the present. For example, if a loved one was mean to you when you were a child, you may experience their agitation due to dementia now as more of the same old meanness.
  • Take care of yourself: To be able to take good care of their parent(s), all child caregivers should take care of themselves physically and emotionally. This is especially true when there is the extra stress of taking care of a parent with whom you don’t have a great relationship. Make sure you have emotional outlets you can connect with, such as the emotional support of a trusted friend. Seek out the support of a social worker or therapist.
  • Detach emotionally but practice compassion: Similar to a health care professional, you can act neutrally toward your loved one and not feel personally aggrieved by what they say or do. You can still be by your parent’s side, not just as an adult child, but as someone providing competent care for them in a sensitive manner. After you’ve helped your parent, do your best to detach from the situation with an unperturbed mind.
  • Accept that you may never have a “fairy-tale” ending: When the relationship between you and your parent has been historically bad, you may have low expectations but have hopes nonetheless for a better relationship. Some even hope that they’ll finally win a parent’s love and admiration. Sadly, in many cases, the caregiver who strives so hard may be disappointed yet again. You might be better off accepting the relationship’s long-standing limitations, knowing that you are providing what help you can and that you are doing the right thing.
  • Engage other family members, if available: Other family members are a resource often overlooked. If you have siblings, and you share the same history, they may not share a willingness to care for a disliked parent but might still want to support you in providing care for your parent. By sharing your journey with other family members, you may find support you didn’t know existed.

Caregiving for a parent if you have/had a strained relationship can be difficult, but it isn’t impossible and can sometimes even help repair your relationship and bring closure. For more details on the subject and some helpful book suggestions, please read my articles, “Is it a Burden—Caregiving for Parents When Your Relationship is Strained” and “How Caregiving Can Heal a Relationship.”

If you decide to become an adult child caregiver for a parent, it is wise to plan in advance for yourself and your loved one, especially if your parent lives in a state that has a filial responsibility law. At the Farr Law Firm, we are experts in Medicaid planning, Medicaid asset protection, estate planning, life care planning, and long-term care planning. If your parent lives in Virginia, Maryland, or the District of Columbia, or is moving to one of these locations, please call us to schedule an appointment.

Elder Care Attorneys Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Care Experts Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Care Specialists Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law Attorneys DC: 202-587-2797

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

Leave a comment

Thank you for your upload