By Jan Warner and Jan Collins
Knight Ridder Newspapers
Q: My wife and I have three grandchildren ranging in age from 1 to 4. One is the baby of our 15-year-old daughter. The other two belong to our 17-year-old daughter. Both daughters are unmarried and in school. The fathers of all the children are also in school. Our daughters and grandchildren all live with us.
The local department of social services recently contacted us to try to get money from my wife and me to support our grandchildren. It's not that we don't already provide a home, the majority of their clothing, medical expenses, etc., for them and our daughters. I thought that parents - not grandparents - were obligated to support their grandchildren. If we have to hire a lawyer, it will take money away from what we do for our children and grandchildren. Can you lead us in the right direction?
A: While it's true that parents are legally obligated to support their children, their obligation is primary. This means that when grandparents stand in a position of acting like a parent to grandchildren by providing for them, the grandparents may be deemed to have a secondary responsibility to provide support. In fact, based upon the decisions of the courts in some states, grandparents who undertake to raise and support grandchildren will not be allowed to deny their obligation. Similar decisions have bound equally surprised stepparents who helped their stepchildren financially even though they had no legal obligation to do so.
Moreover, under a little-known federal law called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, if the underage parents of a custodial child receive governmental assistance for their children, state governments have the option to enact legislation that will allow enforcement of child support orders against not only parents, but also grandparents.
As of today, the legislatures of 13 states have enacted laws that create grandparent liability for child support when the grandchildren's parents are minors: Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
The Congressional intent behind giving states this authority was to give parents the incentive to teach their teenage children about abstinence, birth control, and the dangers of pregnancy. With budget issues in almost every state, we don't think it will take long for other states to get on the bandwagon.
We're afraid that the right direction for you is to the office of an experienced matrimonial lawyer who can help you navigate this little known - but increasingly used - law. Since you are caring for your grandchildren, one idea might be for you to seek child support from the children's fathers - and maybe even from these young men's parents, who have as much responsibility toward these grandchildren as you and your wife.
If you want more information about this and other topics relating to child support, go to www.flyingsolo.com and click on the grandparent child support link. That will take you to a Web site of Laura Morgan, an expert in this area who has developed a wonderful information resource.
© 2003, The State (Columbia, S.C.).
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.