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Korean bill seeks to prevent latter-day Lears

In Shakespeare’s tragedy “King Lear,” the protagonist loses everything after disposing his kingdom to his children, who betray and mistreat him once obtaining his wealth and power.

In South Korea, a new controversial bill is being introduced to prevent Korean parents from becoming modern-day King Lears, some of whom reportedly get abused or neglected by their adult children after handing down most of their wealth and possessions.

The bill, which is being introduced by the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, gives Korean parents the right to sue their children in case of mistreatment and to return any gifts that were previously given to them. 
A total of 5,772 instances of elderly abuse took place in Korea last year, according to government data. (Yonhap)
A total of 5,772 instances of elderly abuse took place in Korea last year, according to government data. (Yonhap)

Under the current law, a donor may rescind a contract of gift if the recipient committed an act of crime against the donor, or if “the donee is under duty to support the donor but does not perform his duty.” However, the law also stipulates that rescission of a contract of gift does not have any effect once the gift has already been given to the donee.

“The current Korean civil act contradicts itself,” said Choi Byoung-chun from the Institute for Democracy and Policies, a think tank for the NPAD.

“While Article No. 556 says a donor can rescind a contract should there be a criminal offense against him or her, or the child does not perform his supporting duty, Article No. 558 -- which stipulates that rescission of a contract is invalid once the gift has already been handed over -- makes it impossible to retrieve any of the possessions regardless of the circumstances. Article No. 558 needs to go now.”

The introduction of the bill, dubbed “Anti-bulhyo bill” -- “bulhyo” means mistreating one’s parents -- is seen as the NPAD’s calculative move to attract elderly voters for next year’s upcoming general election.

The NPAD’s bill states that a parent has the right to sue their children in the event of any mistreatment, not only criminal activities, and have them to return gifts that were given to them in the past. The donee, once asked to return the gift, will have to give back the equivalent monetary value even if he or she has spent it all.

While the move is laden with controversial aspects, such as the subjective view of filial duty and the legal intervention in parent-child relations, the government was also seen to be jumping on the bandwagon by reportedly pushing for its own version of law revision.

According to the Welfare Ministry, a total of 5,772 instances of elderly abuse took place in Korea last year. Of the abusers, 51.1 percent were the victims’ adult children. The number of Korean parents suing their children for financial support more than doubled from 135 in 2004 to 262 last year.

In some European countries, the laws guarantee the donor’s rights to reclaim their gifts should there be mistreatment by the donee. Germany’s Civil Code stipulates that “a donation may be revoked if the donee is guilty of ingratitude by serious wrongdoing to the donor or to a close relative of the donor.”

The French Civil Code also says that an inter vivos gift may be revoked on account of ingratitude when the donee has made an attempt against the life of the donor, or he has been found guilty of cruelty, serious offenses or grievous insults against him, or when he refuses maintenance to him.

“The current law allows ungrateful individuals to get away with their duties as scions after receiving gifts from their parents,” said Choi.

“We’ve seen parents who gave their children almost all of their possessions, thinking the children would take care of and financially support them once receiving the gifts, only to find out they would not even speak to them on the phone.”

However, some experts said the law revision won’t be able to tackle Korea’s high elderly poverty rate, which nearly reached 50 percent early this year. The revision can only benefit a small portion of the elderly population, said family law expert Choi In-hee from Korea Women’s Development Institute.

“The number of elderly individuals who can actually afford to give gifts to their children is very small,” said Choi. “This means most elderly people can’t really benefit from this revision because they don’t have any gifts to give to begin with.”

Choi said the government should share an individual or a family’s responsibility to take care and financially support the elderly member of the family. Under the current law, all adult Koreans are legally obligated to financially support their spouses, parents and parents-in-laws should they become unable to support themselves with their own financial resources of labor.

The country’s destitute elderly individuals have been suffering from the particular laws, as the recipients of state welfare payments lose a portion or all of their allowance if any member of their immediate family -- a spouse, child or child-in-law -- has a regular monthly income, depending on how much they make.

“This system is hard on both the parents and their children, especially if they are all low-income earners,” she said. “The point is to increase the government’s involvement in the caring and supporting of the elderly population.”

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)



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