Under Pennsylvania law, parents must support their children until the children reach the age of 18. The presumption is that once a child reaches the age of majority, child support ends. [Commonwealth ex rel. Welsh v. Welsh, 222 Pa.Super. 585, 588 (1972).] However, the duty to support the adult child may continue if the child is physically or mentally feeble or otherwise unemployable. [Verna v. Verna, 288 Pa. Superior Ct. 511 (1981).]
The test to determine whether child support payments continue after the child reaches 18 is whether the child is able to engage in profitable employment at a supporting wage. [Hanson v. Hanson, 625 A. 2d 1212 - Pa: Superior Court 1993.] The burden is on the child to prove conditions that make employment impossible. [Id. at 17.]
Hold Parents Responsible for Adult Children Bills
This line of reasoning has led to the courts holding parents responsible for the debts of their adult children. A Pennsylvania couple was held responsible for paying psychiatric and hospital bills for treatment provided to their young adult daughter, a college student over the age of 18. The daughter suffered from cerebral palsy and was treated by a hospital and a psychiatrist for depression associated with her condition. When her bills went unpaid and mounted, the psychiatrist and the hospital sued the parents.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court held the parents responsible for paying the bills. First, the court noted that the parents had previously paid the psychiatrist and had provided him with insurance coverage information regarding their daughter. Because the parents never advised the psychiatrist of their decision to stop paying their daughter's bills, the psychiatrist was entitled to expect continued payments.
Second, and more significantly, the court noted that parents have a legal duty in Pennsylvania to support a child who has a physical or mental condition that exists at the time the child reaches 18 and that prevents the child from becoming self-supporting. Children whose physical or mental conditions limit their ability to support themselves are considered "unemancipated" and are entitled to extended support. When an unemancipated, disabled child accepts goods or services from businesses or medical providers, parents can be held directly responsible for paying those businesses or medical providers.
Without More, Parents are not Responsible for Bills
However, parents are not always responsible for their children's medical bills as Sacred Heart Medical Center v. Williamson demonstrates. In the Williamson case, the twenty-one year old son checked himself into the hospital for a broken leg. When the medical bill went unpaid the hospital sued the parents. The court sided with the parents stating that the son was living independently of his parents. The parents may have given gifts to their son at times, but they did not buy his food, pay his rent, or buy his clothes. Even though there was evidence that the parents had paid previous medical bills for their son, this did not obligate them to pay future medical bills as there was no contract or agreement that the parents would be responsible for future bills.
For parents of disabled children in Pennsylvania, supporting that child beyond the age of 18 is most likely a legal obligation. Just how extended this support must be, for what period of time, at what amount, and under what limitations remains unclear. What is certain is that a child who achieves his or her majority with physical or mental limitations that prevent him or her from employment is entitled to some continued parental support. A parent of an adult disabled child should be sure to stay aware of the child's dealings with creditors. If a parent pays a bill for the child, he or she should advise the creditor of whether future payments can be expected from the parent.