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Do Adult Children Have an Obligation to Support Needy Parents?

Even if some siblings can afford to help more than others, no one should shirk the obligation to assist in some way -- financial or otherwise.

Question: My retired parents are having a hard time paying for their modest living expenses in Florida, and they might be facing home health care or nursing home costs soon. I think my siblings and I should all chip in, but my brother is balking. He says we have no moral obligation to help our parents, and that's what government assistance is for. What do you think?

Answer: I'm with you on this. I think filial responsibility is part of a social contract that's a well-established tradition in many societies, such as China and India, but less so in western nations like the U.S.

Assuming that your parents fulfilled their obligation as good parents—spending a lot of effort and money to get you to adulthood and launching you in life—you and your siblings owe them similar support in their old age (if they truly need it and you're all able to afford a share).

This assistance could mean inviting them to live with you and your siblings' families in rotation (a common tradition in many societies, and in America's past), helping to pay for assistance in their home, or sharing their nursing home costs.

If some siblings have more wherewithal than others, some can pay more and some can provide more care. This can be negotiated among the siblings, but no one should shirk the obligation to help in some way. A family heart-to-heart talk is called for—among the siblings first, then with Mom and Dad.

I'm talking here about a moral obligation, not a legal mandate. Thirty states—including California, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, but not New York, Texas or your parents' home state, Florida—have "filial responsibility" laws that require the support of indigent parents by children who can afford some degree of help. These laws are rarely enforced, but that could change as our population rapidly ages and retirement costs accelerate.

Have a money-and-ethics question you'd like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

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