Date: July 6, 2022Attorney: Donald A. Dennison

Did you know that in many states you could be responsible for your parents’ unpaid medical bills? In fact, more than half of all states currently have laws making adult children financially responsible for their parents, including their parents’ long-term care costs. However, these laws are rarely enforced. Notably, New Jersey does not have filial responsibility laws, however, Pennsylvania does.   

Filial responsibility laws obligate adult children to provide necessities like food, clothing, housing and medical care for their parents who cannot afford to take care of themselves. States with filial responsibility laws may allow a civil court action to obtain financial support or cost recovery, impose criminal penalties on children who do not support their parents, or allow both civil and criminal actions.

Generally, most states with such laws do not require children to provide care if the children lack the ability to pay. States also vary on what factors they consider when determining whether an adult child can pay. Children may not be required to support their parents if the parents abandoned them or did not support them.

Regarding long-term care, most low-income parents qualify for Medicaid, making it unnecessary for a nursing home to pursue the resident’s children for payment. When the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 made it more difficult to qualify for Medicaid, experts predicted a wave of lawsuits initiated by nursing homes under state filial responsibility statutes, but thankfully that did not happen. However, in 2012 a Pennsylvania court ruled that an adult child of a nursing home resident was responsible for his mother’s $93,000.00 bill under the state’s filial responsibility law.

In some cases, children have been held liable for their parents’ nursing home debt when their parent transferred assets to their child, making the parent ineligible for Medicaid. Additionally, there are cases in which children who signed an agreement affirming that they would assist their parent in paying for a nursing home have been sued for breach of contract by the facility, although certain state and federal laws such as the Nursing Home Reform Act (“NHRA”) prohibit a third-party guarantee of payment as a condition for admitting (or continuing to provide services) to a nursing home resident.

If one or both of your parents require a long-term care placement, be sure to consult with an elder law attorney to make certain you are not creating a situation in which you might be liable. The Elder Law team at Mandelbaum Barrett PC stands eager to answer your questions about Medicaid and long-term care planning.