By James W. Cushing
Special to the Legal
Lawyers and laypeople alike know at least the basics regarding child support. Most people know that someone who has his or her child most of the time is entitled to child support from the other parent and someone who has his or her child partially needs to pay child support to the other parent. There are two strains of law regarding child support. The first, as established by the Pennsylvania Legislature, makes it clear that every parent has an essentially absolute duty to support his or her child regardless of whether there is a formal child-support order entered by the court. The second is what most people think of when it comes to the law: One parent formally files for child support in court, a hearing or conference is held and an enforceable court order of support is entered. While this makes sense with living parents, what happens when the parent ordered to pay support, the “obligor,” dies?
It seems pretty clear that child support terminates at the time of the obligor’s death, but what happens when the obligor disinherits his or her minor children, so not only is the child-support obligation terminated, but the obligor’s estate cuts out the child as well? The court has looked into this sort of matter.
Surviving obligees (the parents who receive support) have argued that just because the obligor dies, their own responsibilities do not, and neither do the needs of their children in need of support. Indeed, they have argued that there is, as a result, an inherent injustice and inequity if the support is potentially available in the obligor’s estate but not directed to his or her minor children or, even worse, to some minor children but not others. Pennsylvania courts have expressed sympathy for these arguments raised by obligees; in fact, the court has described these arguments as alluring. Obligees have tried to take advantage of the court’s apparent sympathy for them by presenting other states’ laws that have allowed post-mortem child support.
Unfortunately for obligees, the sympathy of Pennsylvania courts only went so far. The courts have pointed out that while some states allow after-death support, the vast majority have not. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the courts have thus far been unwilling to extend a child-support obligation from the living to the dead, mainly because they believe doing so encroaches upon the province of the legislature. Indeed, the courts have noted that these arguments have been around for nearly 20 years at this point and the legislature has yet to take action on them. Therefore, the courts have, so far, believed that stretching existing child-support law to the point of obligating the dead moves beyond the province of developing case law and into the realm of altering statutory law as a legislature. The only exception the courts seem to have allowed in this area is when a property settlement agreement or divorce decree specifically allows for child support after death.
For more information on the issues described above, the following cases and statutes may be of interest: Benson v. Patterson, 574 Pa. 346 (2003); Garney v. Estate of Hain, 439 Pa.Super. 42 (1995); Blue v. Blue, 532 Pa. 521 (1992); Gross v. Oeler, 527 Pa. 532 (1991); Sutliff v. Sutliff, 339 Pa.Super. 523 (1985); 23 Pa.C.S. Section 4321.
James W. Cushing is an associate at the Law Office of Faye Riva Cohen P.C., research attorney for Legal Research Inc. and sits on the board of directors of the Christian Legal Clinics of Philadelphia.