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Recently, we’ve been fielding many questions regarding employees taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to care for adult children. And the short answer is, yes, they may do so; however, not in every case.

Who is a “child” under the FMLA?

The FMLA entitles eligible employees to take job-protected leave for certain qualifying reasons, including to care for a spouse, parent, or child with a serious health condition. “Child,” for purposes of the FMLA, includes biological, adopted, or foster child, a stepchild, a legal ward, or a child of a person standing in as a parent who is either under age 18, or 18 or older and incapable of self-care because of a disability.

Employees may take FMLA leave to care for adult children, but only if those children meet certain criteria. The adult children must:

  • Have a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),
  • Be incapable of self-care due to that disability,
  • Have an FMLA serious health condition, and
  • Need care for that serious health condition.


For the first bullet, a disability under the ADA is an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. Many of these terms could use some defining. Impairment: A physiological disorder affecting one or more of a number of body systems, or a mental or psychological disorder.

Substantially limits: Does not require that the impairment prevent, or severely or significantly restrict, performing a major life activity.

Major life activities: Activities such as learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communication, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, working, normal cell growth, and the operation of a major bodily function such as immune, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

Moving on to the second bullet, to be incapable of self-care, the adult child would need to require active assistance or supervision in three or more activities of daily living or instrumental activities of daily living. These would include caring for one’s grooming and hygiene, bathing, dressing, and eating; cooking, cleaning, shopping, taking public transportation, paying bills, maintaining a residence, and so on.

What about timing and documentation?

The disability would not need to have begun at any particular time. If, for example, an employee’s otherwise healthy adult child is involved in a car accident and suffers a disability because of that accident, the employee could still take FMLA leave to care for the child, even though the child was an adult when the disability began.

In addition to having employees provide completed FMLA certifications supporting the need for leave, employers may have employees provide medical information regarding whether an adult child has a disability. All this information is used to determine if an employee is entitled to take FMLA leave to care for an adult child.

Key to remember

While determining whether an employee is entitled to FMLA leave to care for an adult child can seem daunting on the surface, getting familiar with a few terms, accepting that there are few bright line tests under the ADA, gathering appropriate information, and looking at all the facts involved can go a long way in making the task more manageable.