Post-Mortem Child Support

July 01, 2009 | Child Support, Court Decisions, Legal Perspective

Icon for author Brian Vertz Brian Vertz

For decades, the law of Pennsylvania has been clear: the estate of a deceased parent has no obligation to pay child support for minor children in the absence of an agreement. In re Fessman Estate, 386 Pa. 447, 126 A.2d 676 (1956); Garney v. Estate of Hain, 653 A.2d 21 (Pa.Super.1995). Efforts to pass legislation that would impose a support duty upon the estates of deceased parents have failed.

In cases where a child support order was entered prior to the death of a parent, our Courts have been unwilling to continue the obligation after the parent’s death. Benson ex rel. Patterson v. Patterson, 782 A.2d 553 (Pa.Super.2001). The Superior Court’s decision in Benson, as in many other states, held that it would be an impermissible interference with the deceased parent’s testamentary wishes to impose an obligation not specifically agreed during the parent’s lifetime.

In March, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania considered Estate of Johnson, 970 A.2d 433 (Pa.Super.2009), a case in which a parent agreed to pay child support as part of a marital settlement agreement. The agreement specified that child support would terminate when the children were 18 years old, but it was silent as to whether it would end upon the death of the parent who was paying. The agreement also contained a standard clause specifying that the agreement would bind the estates, heirs, successors and assigns of the spouses.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Superior Court held that the child support provisions of the marital settlement agreement were binding upon the deceased parent’s estate, since the agreement did not explicitly terminate the obligation upon the parent’s death. The estate of the deceased parent argued that the surviving parent could have received life insurance proceeds if she had complied with other provisions of the agreement, and waived child support by failing to comply with the life insurance provisions. The Superior Court was unpersuaded, holding that the estate was liable for child support until the minor child was 18 year old.

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