My son recently received a check of twelve hundred dollars from the US Treasury under the EIS. I pay all of my son’s expenses including food, tuition etc. which costs me much more than that. Does that entitle me to the check my son received from the government? Alternatively, can I tell my son that since he has money he should pay his own expenses?
The first question to consider is what the government’s check represents. Since it was given to everyone, even to people like your son who are not working, it should be viewed as a present. Even though the reason for the payment was that people lost earnings, nevertheless since that was not the criteria one has to view the payment as a present. Thus, your question is whether you are halachically entitled to presents your son receives while you support him. You could have asked the same question when your son had his bar mitzvah and received presents: do they really belong to you or do they belong to your son?
The Mishna (Bava Metsiyo 12 A) writes that if a minor child finds a lost object, ownership is ceded to the father whereas if the child is no longer a minor he can keep the object. There is a dispute among the Amoraim whom the Mishna means when it refers to a minor. The authoritative opinion is that age is not the criterion. Rather anyone who is being supported by his father is considered a minor, even if he is beyond the age of bar mitzvah, and one who is not supported by his father, even if he is under bar mitzvah, is not classified as a minor. Tosafos explains that this halocho was enacted by the Rabbonon in order to ensure that the father will continue supporting his child. They understood human psychology is such that if, while the father supported his son, the son could keep objects which he found, the father may decide to discontinue his child support. Chazal did not wish to see this happening.
The discussion of the Gemara is about lost objects which were found by the son, but our situation concerns a present. The Ran (Bava Metsiyo 12B) rules that presents are different and if one gives a present to a child who is over bar mitzvah, the father is not entitled to the present even if he supports the child. This is also the opinion of other Rishonim such as the Ramban (cited by the Ritva Bava Metsiyo 12B) and the Ritva. Many poskim (including Maharshdam (C.M. 396) and Rav Betsalel Ashkenazy (res 35)) are of the opinion that Rabbeinu Tam (cited by Tosafos Bava Metsiyo 12B concerning eiruv) disagrees. In any case the ruling of the Ran is the only opinion cited by and ruled by the Ramo (270, 2).
The Machane Efraim (Zechiyo U’matono 2) explains that the reason for differentiating between a lost object and a present is that Chazal understood that the fact that the son gets to keep presents which were given to him will not cause the father to cease supporting his son. The reason a father may keep presents given to his child who is under bar mitzvah is not because it will lead to friction between the father and his son, but because the son does not have the ability to acquire any object.
The Sema (270, 8) gives a somewhat different reason, namely, that Chazal understood that the intention of one who gives a present to a child under bar mitzvah who lives with his parents is to give the present to the parents, since children under bar mitzva are not careful with their property. However, if the child is over bar mitzvah he probably is careful with his property so we assume that the one who gave the present to the child meant for the child to keep the present. According to the explanation of the Sema, the government payment certainly does not go to you, the parent, since the government certainly did not intend that the money go to parents. If they had wanted to give the money to parents they would have given them the money directly.
Your second question is whether you can now tell your son to pay his own expenses. To answer this question we must understand the obligation of parents to support their children. The Gemara (Kesubos 65B) writes that one is obligated to support his children until they are six years old. According to many, including the Rambam. this includes six year olds. Another Gemara (Kesubos 49B) writes that the Sanhedrin in Usha (after the destruction of Bayis Sheini) enacted that one must support his minor children. It is clear from the Gemara and is stated explicitly in Shulchan Aruch (Even Hoezer 71, 1) that this second obligation falls into the category of tsedoko, that is, the Rabbonon obligated the father to give tsedoko to support his child. This obligation continues until the child “grows up.”
The poskim discuss what is the meaning of “grows up.” The Drisho (71, 1) and others explain that it means that the father’s obligation ends only when the child can independently earn a living since at that point the father can say to his child: ”Earn your own living.”
Many modern poskim follow the approach of the Drisho. For example, the Mishpatei Uziel (2, 74, 2) writes that in his time (he was the first Sfardic Chief Rabbi of Israel) a father was obligated to support his child until the age of fifteen since boys who started working before that went astray. Similarly, Rav Moshe Feinstein, (YD 1, 143 and EH 1, 106) writes that where it is customary for children to begin working only after marriage a father must support his children until they wed.
Your question is whether these obligations apply even when a child has money of his own. This issue comes up in other situations as well. For example, a grandparent may bequeath a large inheritance to his grandchild, leaving us with the question if the father must then support his rich son. The Shulchan Aruch (ibid) writes that the father is obligated to support the child until the age of six. This is based on what we wrote that the obligation to support children up to age six is a full-fledged takono, and therefore, it does not change even if the child has money of his own. However, past the age of six, where the obligation is a form of tsedoko, if the child has money the father is not obligated to support his child. Therefore, in your situation halachically you could withhold some of your support, in effect recouping the money your son received from the government.
In conclusion: The money your son received under EIS is his. However, you can withhold support to the extent that your son has the funds to support himself. We should note that everything we wrote is from a strict halachic standpoint. It is advisable to carefully consider whether this is a smart approach. Sometimes an action which is legally correct can sour an interpersonal relationship that is worth far more than money.