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March 28, 1996


The Honorable Justice Harrison delivered the opinion of the court:

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Harrison

The Honorable Justice HARRISON delivered the opinion of the court:

This appeal arises from a determination by the Department of Public Aid (the Department) that Vincent and Marilyn Jacobson were liable for the support of their 19-year-old daughter pursuant to section 10--2 of the Illinois Public Aid Code (305 ILCS 5/10--2 (West 1992)) and were therefore required to reimburse the Department for welfare payments it had made to her under the Aid to Families with Dependant Children (AFDC) program. On administrative review, the circuit court of Winnebago County set aside the Department's decision. The appellate court affirmed the circuit court's judgment, holding that section 10--2 (305 ILCS 5/10--2 (West 1992)) violates equal protection as guaranteed by article I, section 2, of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, ยง 2) and the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States (U.S. Const., amend. XIV) because there is no rational basis for its imposition of financial responsibility on parents of 18- to 20-year-old children where the children reside in the parents' home, as was the case here, while exempting from liability parents whose children reside elsewhere. 269 Ill. App. 3d 359, 646 N.E.2d 949, 207 Ill. Dec. 115. We granted the Department's petition for leave to appeal as a matter of right (134 Ill. 2d R. 317), and for the reasons that follow, we now affirm.

The facts are not in dispute. Vincent and Marilyn Jacobson have a daughter named Pamela who gave birth to a child while still a teenager. Pamela kept the baby, and she and the child both live with the Jacobsons in their home, along with Pamela's adult brother. The Jacobsons provide Pamela and her child with free lodging, food, and some clothing. In addition, they allow her the use of an automobile.

The family's financial resources are modest. During the period relevant here, the household's gross annual income fell to just over $21,000. To ease some of the family's burden, Pamela applied to the Department of Public Aid for AFDC benefits for herself and her child. That application was granted, and Pamela began receiving the benefits when she was 19 years old. Her first month's check was for $224, but the benefit amount was subsequently increased to $268 per month. Of these sums, half ($112 the first month and $134 thereafter) was attributable to Pamela and half to her child.

Shortly after the payments commenced, the Department's administrative enforcement unit sent Mr. Jacobson a "Notification of Support Obligation" pursuant to section 10--4 of the Public Aid Code (305 ILCS 5/10--4 (West 1992)). The notice advised Jacobson that he was responsible for Pamela's support. The notice further stated that Jacobson was required to submit a copy of his most recent federal tax return so that the Department could determine the amount of support he was obligated to pay.

The basis for the Department's claim was section 10--2 of the Public Aid Code (305 ILCS 5/10--2 (West 1992)), which provides:

"Parents are severally liable for the support of any child under age 21, except that a parent is not liable for a child age 18 or over if such child is not living with the parent or parents ***. ***

In addition to the primary obligation of support imposed upon responsible relatives, such relatives, if individually or together in any combination they have sufficient income or other resources to support a needy person, in whole or in part, shall be liable for any financial aid extended under this Code to a person for whose support they are responsible ***."

Based on the information it received from Jacobson, the Department determined that he was financially able to contribute to Pamela's support. Pursuant to section 10--7 of the Public Aid Code (305 ILCS 5/10--7 (West 1992)), it directed him to pay $916 in back payments and $134 per month thereafter. Although nominally designated as support payments, the money was to be paid directly to the Department, not Pamela. Its purpose was to reimburse the Department for that portion of Pamela's AFDC benefits attributable to her. We note in this regard that Jacobson was not liable to reimburse the Department for any benefits paid on behalf of Pamela's child, and those benefits play no role in this dispute.

Jacobson petitioned for release from or modification of the Department's support order (305 ILCS 5/10--12 (West 1992)) based on a change in the family's income and on the in-kind support he and his wife already provided to their daughter. With respect to the latter point, Jacobson contended that because his in-kind contributions to Pamela already exceeded the amount which the Department calculated he should pay, it would be inappropriate for the Department to compel him to make any additional payments.

Following a hearing on the petition, the Department determined that under its rules, Jacobson was not entitled to credit for the in-kind support he provided. The Department held, however, that Jacobson and his wife did not have to pay as much as they had originally been ordered. According to the Department's decision, the Jacobsons owed only $802 as reimbursement for previous AFDC payments made to Pamela and $115 per month thereafter. The basis for this reduction was that the Jacobsons' household income had declined.

The Jacobsons promptly filed a complaint for administrative review in the circuit court. 305 ILCS 5/10--14 (West 1992). Once again they contended that they should be given credit for the food, lodging, and other in-kind contributions they were providing for Pamela's support. In addition, they argued that the statutory scheme violated equal protection and was unenforceable because it required a welfare recipient's parents to reimburse the State where the recipient was over the age of 18 and under the age of 21 and lived at home, but imposed no corresponding obligation on the parents of 18- to 20-year-old welfare recipients who lived on their own.

The circuit court set aside the Department's decision, holding that the statutory scheme could survive constitutional challenge, but only if the Department's guidelines for determining a parent's ability to provide support to a child receiving AFDC benefits took into account the applicable provisions of sections 504 and 505 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/504, 505 (West 1992)). The circuit court reasoned that consideration of the relevant factors enumerated in the Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act would avoid disparity in the treatment of parents whose 18- through 20-year-old children lived with ...

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