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AGO 1959 No. 73 - October 06, 1959
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington


A parent may be required to pay the charges for hospitalization of an adult child where the estate of the patient is insufficient to defray said charges.

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                                                                 October 6, 1959

Honorable Roger L. Olson
Prosecuting Attorney
Franklin County
114 North Fifth Avenue
Pasco, Washington                                                                                       Cite as:  AGO 59-60 No. 73

Dear Sir:

            By letter previously acknowledged, you have requested the opinion of this office on a question which we have paraphrased as follows:

            May a parent be held financially responsible for the charges of hospitalization for an adult son who has been committed to a state mental hospital?

            Assuming the commitment is involuntary and the parent has sufficient assets, we answer your question in the affirmative.


            The answer to your inquiry involves the interpretation of § 71.02.230, chapter 25, Laws of 1959, which, so far as material here, provides:

            "After a person has been found mentally ill under Section 71.02.200, the court shall, after reasonable notice of the time, place and purpose of the hearing has been given to persons subject to liability under this section, inquire into the ability of the person's estate, or his spouse, parents or children, or any combination thereof, to pay the charges for transportation and hospitalization in a state hospital, detention pending proceedings, and court costs.  If the court finds that the patient's estate or above named relatives, or combination thereof, are able to pay such charges or any part thereof, an order to such effect shall be entered, . . ."

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            From a reading of the statute, there can be little doubt that the legislature intended to establish parental responsibility, for the cost of hospitalization, to some extent.  While the patient's estate is primarily liable for the charges for hospitalization(In re Rhodes, 196 Wash. 618, 83 P. (2d) 896 (1938)), when the patient is unable to pay these charges, the court is authorized, if circumstances warrant, to order the parent to pay said charges.  Therefore, the only issue is what was intended by the legislature in using the word "parent."  Does the use of this word contemplate the parent of issue who have attained adulthood?

            In ordinary usage, the term "parent" is not usually restricted to refer only to the father and mother of minor children but is also used to denote the father and mother of adult issue.  "Parent" has been defined as the "lawful father or mother of a person."  Black Law Dictionary (4th Ed. 1951).  It is noteworthy here that the definition refers to the father or mother of a "person" and does not limit the term by the use of the word "child," or more particularly, "minor child."

            It has often been said that the meaning of a statute must come from the whole of the statute, unless the terms used are thus ambiguous.  As was said inState v. Houck, 32 Wn. (2d) 681, 684, 203 P. (2d) 693 (1949):

            "Where the language of a statute is plain, free from ambiguity, and devoid of uncertainty, there is no room for construction because the meaning will be discovered from the wording of the statute itself.  Shelton Hotel Co. v. Bates, 4 Wn. (2d) 498, 104 P. (2d) 478."

            With the statute in question, there would seem to be little reason for argument.  The only reference to children made in the statute is that a child shall also be responsible for the care of its parent.  There would seem to be nothing which would indicate that the legislature intended to limit the application of the word "parent" in any way or to distinguish between the parent of a minor child and the parent of adult issue.  This problem was presented to the court in the case of Michel v. State Board of Social Welfare, 245 Iowa 961, 65 N.W. 2d 89 (1954), in regard to a statute which read as follows:

            ". . . Persons legally liable for the support of an insane or idiotic person shall include the spouse, father, mother, and adult children of such insane or idiotic person, . . ."

            There, the court declared that, under the wording of the statute, there was no room for interpretation or construction and the  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] parents were liable for the care of their adult child.

            However, even if it is assumed that the term "parent" is inherently ambiguous, requiring construction, it is the opinion of this office that the same must be considered as including the parent of adult issue.

            It should be noted that the word "parent" relates to the word "person" preceding it in the statute.  If the legislature had intended that a parent be responsible only for a minor child, it would have been a simple matter to phrase the statute so as to indicate the intended result.

            As is often the case in matters of this nature, it might be argued that the legislature intended only to incorporate the common law.  SeeHumboldt County v. Biegger, 232 Iowa 494, 4 N.W. 2d 442 (1942).  However, this argument would seem to be negated by the statute itself as the same also provides that a child shall be responsible for its parents.  Although there is conflict of opinion as to the common law responsibilities, it has never been claimed that a child was so burdened.

            Although this question has never been specifically presented to our Supreme Court, other jurisdictions which have considered this issue have almost unanimously held under statutes of like terminology that a parent is liable for the care of an adult child.  InState v. Stone, Tex. Civ. App., 271 S.W. 2d 741 (1954), the court was presented with this issue.  There, the statute provided:

            "Sec. 2. Where the patient has no sufficient estate of his own, he shall be maintained at the expense:

            "Of the husband or wife of such person, if able to do so;

            "Of the father or mother of such person, if able to do so."

            The court, in holding the parents responsible for the care of an adult child, there said:

            "Said Section 2 provides that where the 'patient' has no sufficient estate of his own he shall be maintained at the expense of his father or mother, among others, if they are able to pay such expense.  As used, the word 'patient' is an all-inclusive designation which as aptly describes an adult as it  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] does a minor, and there is no suggestion of anything which would justify our undertaking by construction to limit it so as to make it apply to only the latter. . . ."

            Such a conclusion was also reached in State v. Stevens, 161 Ohio 432 [[161 Ohio St. 432]], 119 N.E. 2d 616 (1954), wherein the court was dealing with a statute which read:

            "'It is the intent of this act that a husband may be held liable for the support of a wife while an inmate of any of said institutions, and a wife for a husband, a father or mother for a son or daughter, and a son or daughter, or both, for a father or mother.'"

            The Ohio court there concluded:

            "Since the General Assembly has employed the terms 'a son or daughter' without limitation, it is not within the province of this court to hold the provisions apply to onlysome sons or some daughters minors who have been committed to such institutions."

            Also see cases cited in 1 A.L.R. 2d 910.

            Accordingly, it is the opinion of this office that the ordinary and common meaning should be given the word "parent" and that a parent is responsible under § 71.02.230 for the care of an adult child in a state mental hospital.

            This interpretation is strengthened in that case where the child becomes disabled prior to attaining adulthood and such disability continues thereafter.  It would seem here that the weight of authority over the United States is that a parent is liable under the common law.  1 A.L.R. 2d 910.  This philosophy has been expounded in two Washington cases, Van Tinker v. Van Tinker, 38 Wn. (2d) 390, 229 P. (2d) 333 (1951); andSchultz v. Western Farm Tractor Co., 111 Wash. 351, 354, 190 Pac. 1007 (1920).  But see,Moss v. Moss, 163 Wash. 444, 1 P. (2d) 916 (1931).  Although neither of these opinions is to be considered authoritative statements of the law, they do express such a philosophy.  As was said in theSchultz case:

            ". . . Doubtless the legal duty of a parent to support his normal children ceases at the age of majority, but the rule is not the same with  [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] respect to his defective children, whether the defect be mental or physical.  To these he owes a continuing obligation to support, which ceases only when the necessity for support ceases."

            It is hoped that the foregoing opinion will be of some assistance to you.


Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

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