The Department of Labor released a new interpretation and clarification of the definition of “son or daughter” under Section 101(12) of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as it applies to an individual 18 years or older and incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability.  The FMLA entitles an eligible employee to take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid, job-protected leave during a 12-month period to care for a son or daughter with a serious health condition. The FMLA defines a “son or daughter” as a “biological, adopted, or foster child, a stepchild, a legal ward, or a child of a person standing in loco parentis, who is—(A) under 18 years of age; or (B) 18 years of age or older and incapable of self-care because of a mental or physical disability.” However, in order to meet the FMLA’s definition of a “son or daughter,” an adult child (i.e., one who is 18 years of age or older) must have a mental or physical disability and be incapable of self-care because of that disability. The FMLA regulations adopt the ADA’s definition of “disability” as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity (as interpreted by the EEOC) to define “physical or mental disability.”

A parent will be entitled to take FMLA leave to care for a son or daughter 18 years of age or older, if the adult son or daughter:

  • (1) has a disability as defined by the ADA;
  • (2) is incapable of self-care due to that disability;
  • (3) has a serious health condition; and
  • (4) is in need of care due to the serious health condition

It is only when all four requirements are met that an eligible employee is entitled to FMLA-protected leave to care for his or her adult son or daughter.

Based on the purpose of the FMLA, the legislative history of the definition of “son or daughter,” and WHD’s enforcement experience, as well as the example in the preamble to the 2008 FMLA Final Rule, it is the Administrator’s interpretation that the age of onset of a disability is irrelevant in determining whether an individual is a “son or daughter” under the FMLA. An employee is entitled to take FMLA leave to care for a son or daughter with a serious health condition who is 18 years of age or older and incapable of self-care because of a disability regardless of when the disability commenced.

Therefore, for a parent to take FMLA leave for an adult child, the son or daughter must not only be incapable of self-care due to a disability but must also need care due to a condition that qualifies as a serious health condition under the FMLA regulations. While the adult son or daughter’s serious health condition need not be directly related to his or her disability, the same condition may satisfy both the ADA definition of disability and the FMLA definition of serious health condition.

The interpretation by the Department of Labor gives two helpful examples in order to understand these rules:

Example 1: An employee’s 37-year old daughter suffers a shattered pelvis in a car accident which substantially limits her in a number of major life activities (i.e., walking standing, sitting, etc.). As a result of this injury, the daughter is hospitalized for two weeks and under the ongoing care of a health care provider. Although she is expected to recover, she will be substantially limited in walking for six months. If she needs assistance in three or more activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing, and maintaining a residence, she will qualify as an adult “daughter” under the FMLA as she is incapable of self-care because of a disability. The daughter’s shattered pelvis would also be a serious health condition under the FMLA and her parent would be entitled to take FMLA-protected leave to provide care for her immediately and throughout the time that she continues to be incapable of self-care because of the disability.

Example 2: An employee’s 25-year old son has diabetes but lives independently and does not need assistance with any ADLs or IADLs. Although the young man’s diabetes qualifies as a disability under the ADA because it substantially limits a major life activity (i.e., endocrine function), he will not be considered an adult “son” for purposes of the FMLA because he is capable of providing daily self-care without assistance or supervision. Therefore, if the son is admitted to a hospital overnight for observation due to a skiing accident that does not render him disabled, his parent will not be entitled to take FMLA leave to care for him because he is over the age of 18 and not incapable of self-care due to a mental or physical disability.

If the son later becomes unable to walk and is also unable to care for his own hygiene, dress himself, and bathe due to complications of his diabetes, he will be considered an adult “son” as he is incapable of self-care due to a disability. The son’s diabetes will be both a disability under the ADA and a chronic serious health condition under the FMLA because his condition requires continuing treatment by a doctor (e.g., regular kidney dialysis appointments). If his parent is needed to care for him, his parent may therefore take FMLA-protected leave to do so.