Many states have filial responsibility laws that make children responsible for their parents’ medical care, however these laws are rarely enforced.
More than half of the states have “filial responsibility” laws that make adult children responsible for their parents’ medical care, if their parents can’t pay. These rules do not apply when a patient qualifies for Medicare – in that case, the Medicare system pays. However, if a patient can’t pay for care received before qualifying for Medicare, filial responsibility laws could require the patient’s child or children to pay. Most filial responsibility laws take an adult child’s ability to pay into account.
These laws are generally designed to minimize the parent’s burden on the state’s welfare system. Most allow any long-term care providers to sue family members for payment, but others make failing to care for a parent a criminal offense.
Most states that have filial responsibility laws don’t enforce them, here’s why: Most elders who can’t pay for care receive federal assistance through Medicaid, and federal law specifically prohibits going after adult children. Also, most folks who need help paying for nursing home care qualify for Medicaid and it’s unusual for someone to rack up a large bill before qualifying. So, because there is so little opportunity to apply filial responsibility laws, they very rarely affect families.
In most states, for a child to be held accountable for a parent’s bill, all of these things would have to be true:
Although, in practice, these laws rarely cause children have to pay for their parents’ bills, a 2012 Pennsylvania appeals court ruled that an adult son of a nursing home resident would have to pay his mother’s $93,000 nursing home bill based on the Pennsylvania filial responsibility law. This is a rare case because 1) the mother made just enough money through a pension not to qualify for Medicaid, and 2) the court allowed a private institution to sue the son, whereas filial responsibility laws are generally designed to empower the state to recover payments to reduce the burden on welfare. While this is an unusual case, some practitioners wonder if rising care costs will cause more cases like this to surface.
If you’re worried about becoming responsible for your parents’ long-term care bills (or if you’re worried that your child could become responsible for paying your bills), see a lawyer for help. An experienced elder care lawyer will know whether your state has filial responsibility laws, and if so, whether it enforces them. For help finding a lawyer, look to Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
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To learn about other issues that affect elders, go to Nolo’s section on Elder Care & Seniors.