Chalimony: Seeking Equity Between Parents of Children with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses


In 2000, nearly three million American families included at least one child with a disability or chronic illness. In many families, caring for these children puts unusual stresses on parents, who divorce or never form a shared household in unusually high numbers. Principal caregiving parents, usually mothers, are much more likely than other parents not to be fully engaged in paid work. Their unusual family formation and maintenance patterns, coupled with their financial distress, should make these children and their families appear frequently in reported family law cases. Instead, they are specters, visible only at the margins of child support and alimony law. In this article, I propose to improve family law’s responsiveness to these families through a new interparental financial remedy I call “chalimony.”

As the word suggests, chalimony is concurrently about children and adults. The interdependency that characterizes parent-child relationships is well known. Interdependency captures the idea that parents and children never exist in a vacuum; they affect each other’s lives and are affected simultaneously by the practices and attitudes of other people, communities, and institutions. A child does not survive or thrive without the care of one or more committed adults. Caring for the child changes the adult or adults who provide the care, and those adults, in turn, depend on the engagement of other adults and community institutions. Parents of children with disabilities or chronic illnesses are often particularly needy of support because of the dramatic impact of a child’s condition on a parent’s family stability and financial capacity. The role of family law in this area should be to support the caregiver or caregivers and to encourage the people and practices that help them thrive.

I envision chalimony as a remedy addressing some of the economic loss experienced by caregiving parents of children with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Simultaneously, a desire to avoid paying chalimony could motivate the potential payor parent to share more fully the responsibility of providing the child with care. Chalimony would serve as an additional financial remedy, over and above child support and alimony.It would be awarded to caretaker parents of children with disabilities or chronic illnesses in situations where the child’s care needs impair, either partially or totally, the labor force participation of the caretaker parent.Like child support and alimony, chalimony would be paid by the child’s nonresident parent, assuming that parent has the ability to pay. Whether a chalimony award should be made and in what amount would be a case-specific determination.

In Part I, I describe what many children with disabilities or chronic illnesses and their parents experience as parents try to combine adequate care for the child with participation in the paid workforce. This section provides a detailed account of caring for a child with special healthcare needs, because the legal literature concerning child-family relationships contains little information about these families. In Part II, I describe the remedy of chalimony in more detail and discuss the kinds of families that would benefit from it. In Part III, I distinguish chalimony from the two other principal interparental financial remedies: child support andalimony. In Part IV, I justify chalimony on the basis of fairness to payor parents, to caregiving parents, and to their children.

This article introduces the idea of chalimony in part to expose the law’s failure to develop adequate responses to the many issues facing families that include children with disabilities and chronic illnesses. While these families’ unmet needs are also apparent in the areas of public benefits, employment, education, housing, and military life, these topics are beyond the scope of the current article. I also leave for another day a full discussion of the implementation of chalimony and focus instead on making the case that chalimony provides a partial remedy for the pressing needs of some of our society’s most vulnerable families.

Suggested Reading