A Child’s Responsibility for Medical or Nursing Home Costs
Whether you can be held responsible for the medical or nursing home costs of your parents depends on where you live. Although more than half of the states in the United States have laws on the books saying that children can be held responsible for medical or nursing home costs, states and/or courts rarely enforce such laws. One of the few exceptions to this general rule is Pennsylvania, where as recently as 2012, a court held a child responsible for his mother’s unpaid nursing home bill.
In general, the debts of a parent cannot be passed onto a child. Usually, unpaid medical or nursing home bills would recovered by the creditor submitting a claim against a decedent’s estate, thereby reducing the amount that can pass under the decedent’s will or intestacy. Instead, under the Pennsylvania law, the children of an indigent parent can be held responsible for the parent’s support during the parent’s lifetime as the law states that children have the responsibility to care for, maintain, and financially assist their parents, if the parents are indigent. However, before the medical or nursing home provider can hold the child liable, it will have to demonstrate that the parent is unable to pay. Moreover, if the child does not have sufficient financial ability to pay, he or she will not be held responsible for the debt.
In 2012, the Pennsylvania Superior Court in the case of Health Care and Retirement Corporation of America vs. Pittas, 46 A.3d. 719 (Pa. Super, 2012) held that a nursing home resident’s son was responsible for her unpaid bill in the amount of $93,000. In that case, the mother had fled the country without paying her bill and left behind no assets to pay the bill. However, contrary to prior Pennsylvania cases, the court did not find that there had been any fraudulent transfer of assets from mother to son, which had been required in the past before holding a child liable for such bills. As recently as May 2015, a Pennsylvania court refused to hold a child liable for a parent’s medical bills on the grounds that a child could only be held liable if public funds had been used for the benefit of the parent. There is currently a bill pending in the Pennsylvania legislature to overturn the statute holding children responsible for such bills.
Regardless of whether a state will enforce these filial responsibility laws, a child can still be held liable for a parent’s medical or nursing home bills if the parent and child hold any property in joint names. This includes both real property and bank accounts. For instance, if a parent and child own a home in joint names, the creditor could put a lien on the property and require that the unpaid bills be satisfied from the sale of the home. Additionally, if a parent decides to engage in do-it-yourself Medicaid planning by gifting most or all of her or her assets to a child, Medicaid benefits could be denied for a length of time ranging from months to years based on the timing of the transfer, thereby leaving the parent who applied for Medicaid with no way to pay for nursing home care. In that instance, a child might feel morally obligated to pay for nursing home or medical expenses in order to keep a parent from utter poverty.