Caring for an Adult Child Under the FMLA

This week, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division issued its first Administrator’s Interpretation of the new year. The Interpretation clarifies who qualifies as an adult “son or daughter” for whom an employee may take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The FMLA allows employees to take time off to care for a son or daughter with a serious health condition. If the child is 18 or older, however, additional requirements apply. The child must not only have a serious health condition for which he or she is in need of care, but must also have a disability (as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act) that renders the child incapable of caring for him- or herself.

These requirements were already in place, set out in the law and regulations. The Interpretation makes these additional points:

  • The adult child’s disability may begin after the child turns 18. Previously, there was some confusion about a parent could take FMLA leave to care for a child who became disabled as an adult or only for a child who was under the age of 18 at the onset of the disability. The Interpretation makes clear that the age of onset isn’t a factor. For example, an employee may take FMLA leave to care for a 30-year-old child who becomes disabled as the result of a car accident or cancer diagnosis.¬†
  • The more lenient standards adopted in the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) apply to the FMLA. The ADAAA eased the requirements for proving a disability in order to ensure coverage for more people. For example, a disease that would be disabling when active counts as a disability, even when it is in remission. (For more on the ADAAA, see Nolo’s article ADA Amendments: ¬†More Protections Against Disability Discrimination.) This broader standard is to be used when determining whether an adult child has a disability.
  • Not every disability will qualify under the FMLA, however. The adult child must also be incapable of self-care, which will not be the case for every disability. Someone is incapable of self-care only if that person requires “active assistance or supervision” in at least three activities of daily living. These include basic activities such as grooming and hygiene, bathing, dressing, and eating. They also include things like cooking, shopping, maintaining a home, using public transportation, and so on. An adult child whose disability is in remission or controlled by medication may be fully capable of self-care; therefore, the child’s parent would not be entitled to time off under the FMLA.
  • Employees may be able to use regular FMLA leave to care for an adult child who is injured in military service. Currently, the FMLA gives employees whose children suffer a serious illness or injury while serving in the military the right to take 26 weeks of leave in a single 12-month period. However, this leave entitlement doesn’t renew every year, like the other types of FMLA leave (for which an employee may take only 12 weeks off per year). Unless the adult child suffers a new injury, or another of the employee’s children is also injured, the employee’s right to take 26 weeks off is a one-time-only entitlement. The Interpretation clarifies that an employee who has used up this leave may, in the following year, be entitled to take regular FMLA leave if the adult child’s serious injury qualifies as a disability and renders the child incapable of self-care. This will be a significant relief to parents of wounded service members, whose injuries often require extended or even life-long assistance.

You can find detailed information on every aspect of the FMLA, including how it dovetails with the requirements of the ADA, in The Essential Guide to Family and Medical Leave.