Are Adult Children Financially Responsible for Indigent Parents?

Some 30 states currently have laws making adult children responsible for their parents if their parents can't afford to take care of themselves. These “filial responsibility” laws have rarely been enforced, but six years ago when federal rules made it more difficult to qualify for Medicaid long-term care coverage, some elder law attorneys predicted that nursing homes would start using the laws as a way to get care paid for.

There has been a recent stir in Pennsylvania regarding one man being forced to financially care for his ailing mother. As a recent Pennsylvania appeals court case dramatizes, many of us with elderly loved ones receiving expensive care may just end up footing the bill.

The case is Health Care & Retirement Corporation of America v. Pittas (Pa. Super. Ct., No. 536 EDA 2011, May 7, 2012), and the law at issue is a type of “filial responsibility law” on the books in as many as 30 states. Both the case and the law were addressed in a recent blog post titled “Son Liable for Mom's $93,000 Nursing Home Bill Under 'Filial Responsibility' Law.”

If you haven’t yet heard of “filial responsibility,” it is the cornerstone of Confucius’ Analects, the Bible, and much of modern estate law. That noted, in this Pennsylvania case and the laws of numerous states, filial responsibility is a way to ensure someone comes up with the payment.

In this Pennsylvania case, John Pittas’ mother entered a nursing home after a car crash and later left both the nursing home and the country once she recovered. Her recovery came before Medicaid was able to process her application and assume payment for the nursing home. As a result, the nursing home saw $93,000 appear in its accounts receivable column.

Rather than wait for Medicaid to consider payment, the nursing home filed a lawsuit against Mr. Pittas for his mother’s bill under the state’s filial responsibility law. Note: the nursing home didn’t care that there were a number of family members – other children and a spouse – and neither did the court. Why? Because under the doctrine of filial responsibility, the nursing home could simply pick its target to receive payment, and they chose John Pittas.

While this horror story is specific to Pennsylvania law and its court system, the basic concepts of this law and its application are shared by many states. It is important to note, also, that this case only existed because Medicaid (or Medicare) hadn’t reviewed and approved the bill. If Medicaid (or Medicare) had paid the tab, then no claim would have been established against John Pittas.  That, of course, is the moral of this story.  Timely filing of a successful Medicaid application would have stopped this lawsuit in its tracks as the nursing home was likely contractually obligated to except payment from this program.

You can learn more about elder law planning  on our website. Be sure to sign up for our complimentary e-newsletter to stay abreast of issues like these that could affect you, your loved ones and your estate planning.

Reference: ElderLawAnswers.com (May 11, 2012) “Son Liable for Mom's $93,000 Nursing Home Bill Under 'Filial Responsibility' Law


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