by Shelley Seagler
UPDATED 2019: This article, originally published in 2012, continues to be one of our most popular posts. Please keep in mind that it is possible some of the facts offered have changed throughout the years.
When John Pitta’s mother couldn’t pay her nursing home bill, he was sued for almost $93,000. The nursing home won the case, so Pitta appealed. But because his mother was considered indigent and Pitta had the financial resources to cover his mother’s bill, he lost the appeal and the courts required him to pay.
Filial Responsibility Laws
There are currently 30 states that have Filial Responsibility Laws. These laws allow spouses, parents, and adult children to be sued by long-term care providers for indigent family member’s unpaid expenses. In most cases, indigent doesn’t mean the parent is destitute. In Pitta’s case it simply meant his mother’s Social Security benefit was not enough to cover the monthly expenses she incurred while she was in the nursing home.
Pitta was not the first person to find himself in this situation. In 2009, Andrea August was sued by a nursing home for her parents’ $300,000 bill. After her lawyer proved she was unable to pay the bill, the court ruled in her favor.
Laws forcing children to cover their parents long-term care expenses are not without supporters. Advocates of filial responsibility believe the laws “enforce children’s responsibility” by shifting the financial burden from taxpayers to the family. They also argue that the laws encouraging proper financial planning. But quite frankly, as the child of a widow, Pitta’s story makes me very, very uncomfortable.
I love my mom and am more than willing to contribute financially to her care. But at the same time, I have other important financial responsibilities. I have a child, a mortgage, and my own retirement and long-term health care needs to consider.
Should states have the right to mandate what kind of daughter I am? Should they have the right to dictate my level of loyalty and responsibility? Additionally, couldn’t I end up paying for things that I have no say in? After all, I am not my mother’s legal guardian. And she could be considered financially indigent long before she is mentally unable to make decisions for herself.
What Can You Do
If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering what you can do to protect yourself. Here are a few steps you can take:
Know the Filial Responsibility Laws for your state. A quick google search will can let you know more about the filial support laws in your state.
Understand how Medicaid works in your state. If your parent is already enrolled in Medicaid, federal law prohibits long-term care providers from going after you. But don’t assume your parent will automatically qualify for Medicaid. Each state has different income and poverty levels that must be met. Additionally, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 called for greater restrictions on asset transfers making Medicaid long-term care eligibility significantly more challenging.
Look into long-term care insurance. If your parent can qualify for it, it may be a better financial decision for you to contribute to their insurance premium now, rather than potentially face being stuck paying their bills down the road. And, if you don’t have it yourself, there will never be a cheaper time than now to get it.
Lastly, talk to your parents about long-term care. Discussing elder care, especially nursing homes, can be very difficult. But talking with your parents now about their expectations and financial situation, as well as your willingness/ability to contribute could save you a lot of headaches (and heartaches) down the road.