As an elder law attorney, I am often asked this excellent question: “If I cannot pay for my nursing home care, is my child required to pay my unpaid bills?”
In Pennsylvania, the answer to that question is “Yes”. However, there is a “But” that I will explain after I elaborate on the “Yes”.
The “Yes” part of my answer comes from a law in Pennsylvania called a Filial Support Law. The law states that a child is responsible for the care or the cost of care for their indigent parent.
The filial support law can be used by a parent to sue a child for care and support. It can also be used by facilities, such as nursing homes, to sue children to collect unpaid bills for their parent’s care. This happens frequently.
There are a few exceptions built into the law. One is for a child who was abandoned by their parent for at least 10 years of their minority. The second is for the child who does not have sufficient financial ability to support the indigent parent. However, the threshold for being deemed to have the financial ability to support a parent has been set very low. Courts have held children financially responsible to pay for their parent’s care even though the children have their own families to support as well.
When is your parent considered to be “Indigent?” There is no definition of indigent in the law, but courts have determined that a person is indigent if they have insufficient means to provide themselves with the care and support that they need.
The law imposes the filial responsibility on children even when there is no claim of financial wrongdoing by a child. Further, when there is a situation of a transfer of a parent’s assets to a child or another party, the law can be applied to any of the children, not just the child who benefited from the transfer.
In a family with more than one child, just being the “good” child does not shield you from liability. For example, assume that there are two children in the family and one child transfers his mother’s home or funds to himself (“bad” child). This kind of transfer can create a lengthy period during which Mom will be ineligible for certain government nursing home benefits. Unpaid bills can result. Under the support law the other child (“good” child) can be held solely responsible for the payment of the care costs for the indigent mother, even if the “good” child was unaware of and/or did not benefit from the transferred funds.
Finally, an explanation of the “But” part of the answer. The “But” is that proper planning can prevent a child from becoming personally responsible for the cost of their parent’s care. If correct planning is completed, there are programs, such as Medical Assistance and Veterans benefits, for which a parent may be able to qualify. These benefit programs can help pay for nursing home and other care costs. With this kind of expert planning in place the parent’s care costs get paid and children don’t end up getting sued.