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Children legally obliged to support elderly parents

By: Global Ideas Bank 


In many countries, there is no way to enforce the moral obligation to look after one's parents. A father can be compelled by law to maintain his children. A husband can be forced to support his wife. But a son without a sense of moral obligation to support his parents may have no legal obligation to do so.

Under the bill I introduced in Singapore, an elderly person would be able to apply to the court for maintenance from any or all of his adult children. (Of course, the bill applies to mothers and daughters as well.) The court would have the discretion to refuse to make an order if it was unjust; for example, where the applicant abandoned or neglected or abused his children. Also, before the court orders maintenance for the parents, the court would be required to take into account the resources of the child, and the child's obligation to maintain his own spouse and offspring.

Such legislation would not be unique to Singapore. For decades, India, Israel and Taiwan have had laws to enforce the obligation to support one's parents. The United Kingdom had such a law from 1601 to 1967. A dozen American states, among them California and Illinois, have some sort of civil law provision for parents and grandparents to sue descendants for support.

Some critics have said that applying to the court for maintenance from one's children is undignified. I wonder whether it is more dignified to apply for public assistance or to depend on the kindness of strangers. Or perhaps it would be more dignified to starve quietly and without fuss.

Cynics have dubbed this the 'Sue Your Son' law. They miss the point completely. It would be only in a very extreme case that any parent would take his children to court. The effect of the bill, if it becomes law, will be more subtle.

First, it 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 critics who say that the proposed law does not promote filial piety are right. It has nothing to do with filial piety. It kicks in where filial piety fails. 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.

I take a pragmatic view. The law I have proposed 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.

Summarised from an article in The Wall Street Journal (28/6/94) entitled 'Honour Thy Father and Mother - or Else' by Walter Woon, a member of the Singapore Parliament and a professor of law at the National University of Singapore (monitored for the Institute by Roger Knights).

Copyright 2002 Global Action on Aging
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