A German court case's impending verdict is poised to create a controversial precedent in this aging country, where a child is asked to finance elder care for a father who had cut him out of his life.
MUNICH — The son’s last contact with his estranged father was a postcard sent 40 years ago. Then, after decades of radio silence, he received a letter — from the social security office in Bremen. It informed him that his father had been taken into a home and that he, the son, was liable for the costs of his care.
The father died in 2012, at age 90, and the authorities now want his son to pay back almost a third of his care costs, which amount to more than 9,000 euro. The son, a 60-year-old retiree, has gone to court to fight the claim.
After his parents’ marriage broke down when he was 17, his father rejected every attempt to re-establish a relationship and all but cut him out of his will in 1998. When the son finished school, his exam results were greeted with a shoulder shrug. When he told his father that he was engaged, the elder replied that his son was crazy.
It’s a tragic story of family breakdown, but what happens next may also set a legal precedent in Germany. The case has gone through multiple appeals in different courts, and has now reached the Federal High Court in Karlsruhe. Its forthcoming decision will have consequences across the entire country.
The question of who pays for elderly care is a pressing one for a country like Germany, which has a growing aging population. But as this case highlights, the issue has become further complicated by rising divorce rates and single parenthood. There is a growing number of people who had very little contact with one parent from a young age, or never knew one of their parents at all. These children may be well within their rights to ask why they should be expected to pay for the care of a parent who abandoned them.
The sticky wicket of mutual responsibility
German law dictates that parents and children have a mutual responsibility to provide support and care for one another. But this responsibility may be reduced or dismissed if, for example, the parent has failed to pay child support. As the lawyer for the authorities in Bremen says, the father in this case always paid the required child support. The lawyer argues that it was difficult in the 1970s for divorced fathers to have relationships with their children and lost contact in roughly half of all cases.
Of course, the son’s lawyer sees things differently. She claims that the father’s utter lack of interest in his son’s exam results at school represented a “deep insult and rejection” of her client. And, she says, the father’s decision to privilege his partner over his son in his will represented a complete failure to fulfill his parental responsibility. She argues that forcing the son to pay for his father’s care would constitute a fundamental and “intolerable contradiction of justice.”
The verdict in this case could have far-reaching consequences for local authorities across Germany. They currently have to pay out social security to meet the costs of care for elderly people whose pensions are too small or whose children cannot afford to pay. In 2013, the cost to local authorities was 3.7 billion euros, a sum that is expected to rise. Today, there are 2.5 million elderly people in need of care in Germany — and the Federal Statistical Office estimates that this number will reach 3 million by 2020.
The court’s verdict will have no impact on parental duties toward their offspring, as this is already outlined in the constitution, but children’s responsibility is a more vague issue. That’s what makes the court’s decision so complicated. The Federal High Court has ruled on two similar cases in the past, but with contradictory verdicts.
In 2004, the court ruled that a daughter did not have to pay for her mother’s upkeep because she was raised by her grandparents from the age of one and barely had any contact with her mother. The court decided that this constituted a “serious failure” on the mother’s part to fulfill her responsibility.
But in 2010, a man from Gelsenkirchen had to pay 40,000 euros to have his mother taken into a care home, even though she had treated him badly. The woman was mentally ill, and the court decided that parents retain the right to financial support from their children in the event of a severe illness.
At the January hearing for this case, Judge Hans-Joachim Dose said that the father had “regularly avoided” his son. The son still finds his father’s behavior so hurtful that he does not want to be named in the media. Should such a traumatized person be made to finance care for someone who has caused him so much grief? The Federal High Court has a difficult decision to make.