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Neff v. Miller





Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. James C. Murray, Judge, presiding.


Plaintiff, Philip G. Neff, appeals from an order of the trial court, affirming a final administrative decision of defendant Jeffrey C. Miller, Director of defendant Department of Public Aid (Department). The plaintiff was ordered to reimburse the Department an amount of $3,432 at the rate of $286 per month for support rendered plaintiff's ex-wife while they were still married. Plaintiff contends: (1) he is not required by the Illinois Public Aid Code (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 23, par. 10-1 et seq.) (Code) to pay the charges because his ex-wife voluntarily left the family and home; (2) the standard and rules under the Code, requiring support from responsible relatives, were improperly construed and therefore incorrectly applied to plaintiff's situation and (3) the standard adopted on October 1, 1975, by the Department did not meet the Code requirement that it be recomputed periodically.

Philip and Genevieve Neff were married in November 1954, and five children were born of the marriage. On October 13, 1975, Mrs. Neff left the family home and entered a psychiatric facility for treatment of mental problems. She eventually moved into a nursing home. Plaintiff continued to give Mrs. Neff "pocket money" through 1977 and paid for various expenses in 1978. The marriage was dissolved on June 19, 1981.

Mrs. Neff received public assistance beginning in December 1978. On January 30, 1980, the Department notified plaintiff that he was considered to be a "legally responsible relative" and, therefore, was liable for the assistance furnished his wife. The Department informed plaintiff that he owed the full amount of assistance unless he supplied requested documentation which it could use to evaluate his financial ability to pay.

After plaintiff failed to submit his latest Federal income tax return, he was considered fully liable for assistance of $15,033.41 furnished to his wife over a 15-month period. On May 1, 1980, the Department issued an administrative support order, requiring plaintiff to pay $1,002 per month, effective June 1, 1980. Plaintiff responded by submitting his 1979 tax return and requested reconsideration on the matter. Based on the information provided, the Department redetermined the support obligation by using Attachment I to Department Rule 6.01, codified as "Standard A For Determining Responsible Relative Liability," table to 89 Illinois Administrative Code, section 103.10 et seq. (Standard A). According to Standard A, plaintiff's obligation was determined to be $286 per month, and a support order to that effect was issued on July 1, 1980. Plaintiff contested the order and requested a hearing.

An administrative hearing took place on October 24, 1980. A caseworker from the Cook County department of public aid testified regarding the process by which plaintiff's support obligation was determined. Plaintiff then testified regarding his wife's departure from the home, his contributions to her support, and his expenses for maintaining the family and home. The hearing officer made several findings, including a determination that Mrs. Neff voluntarily left the home in 1975 and did not return and that plaintiff had been notified that the Department calculated the $286-per-month figure pursuant to the Code. On November 10, 1980, the Director of the Department issued a final administrative decision, affirming the administrative support order.

Plaintiff filed a complaint for administrative review of the order. On November 22, 1982, the trial court reversed the Department's decision, finding that the common law relieved a spouse from the duty to support when the other spouse voluntarily left the home. Defendants filed a motion for reconsideration. On June 28, 1984, upon reconsideration, the court affirmed the final administrative decision. The court entered judgment against the plaintiff in the amount of $3,432 to be paid at $286 a month. This amount was to cover the assistance given Mrs. Neff for the period from June 1980, when the administrative support order took effect until the Neffs' divorce in June 1981. Plaintiff appeals the decision.

• 1 Plaintiff initially contends that the Illinois Public Aid Code has not abrogated the common law, under which a spouse does not remain liable for support where the other spouse voluntarily leaves the marital home without cause or consent. (See Ross v. Ross (1873), 69 Ill. 569; 21 Ill. L. & Prac. Husband & Wife sec. 52 (1977).) Article X of the Code, however, states:

"It is the intent of this Code that the financial aid and social welfare services herein provided supplement rather than supplant the primary and continuing obligation of the family unit for self-support to the fullest extent permitted by the resources available to it. This primary and continuing obligation applies whether the family unit * * * of husband and wife remains intact and resides in a common household or whether the unit has been broken by the absence of one or more members of the unit. The obligation of the family unit is particularly applicable when a member is in necessitous circumstances and lacks the meaning of a livelihood compatible with health and well-being.

By accepting financial aid under this Code, a spouse * * * shall be deemed to have made assignment to the Illinois Department for aid * * * of any and all rights, title, and interest in any support obligation up to the amount of financial aid provided. The rights to support assigned to the Illinois Department * * * shall constitute an obligation owed the State * * * by the person who is responsible for providing the support, and shall be collectible under all applicable processes." (Emphasis added.) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 23, par. 10-1.)

The Code defines a "family unit" as "husband and wife" and considers "spouses" to be "legally responsible relatives." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 23, par. 2-11.) Further, the Code declares that "[a] husband is liable for the support of his wife, and a wife for the support of her husband." Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 23, par. 10-2; see also 21 Ill. L. & Prac. Husband & Wife sec. 51 (1977).

Plaintiff argues that, with this language, the legislature merely intended to restate the common law that a husband and wife are liable, if able, for the other's support furnished by the Department. We disagree. We believe that the legislature went further and clearly indicated that it is the legal relationship between the spouses which controls the responsibility for support regardless of whether they reside together. A finding that one spouse left the marital home, therefore, does not affect the determination that the other spouse is a legally responsible relative under the statute. (See Department of Mental Health v. Beil (1976), 44 Ill. App.3d 402, 407, 357 N.E.2d 875.) When the supreme court discussed the Mental Health Code in Department of Mental Health v. Warmbir (1967), 37 Ill.2d 267, 269, 226 N.E.2d 4, it stated:

"The statute in question obligates a person to pay something for his or her spouse in a State mental hospital. This obligation devolves on every married person simply by virtue of the relationship."

We believe that, similarly, the statutory obligation of a spouse under the Public Aid Code continues as long as the parties maintain their legal marital relationship. We therefore find that plaintiff's responsibility for his ...

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