If Your Parents Can’t Pay Their Bills, You May Have To
- Pennsylvania’s “filial support law”can make children liable for parents’ bills
- Twenty-eight other states have similar laws
- First known filial support case with large liability but no fault
Parents can spend a fortune feeding, clothing and educating their children. Now, it’s time for the kids to give back, says the Pennsylvania law which is being used to hold children liable for their parents’ expensive medical bills.
John Pittas, a 47-year-old restaurant owner, has found himself staring at a bill for $92,943.41 for his mother’s stint in a rehab center after she broke both legs in a car accident and didn’t have her Medicaid coverage in order. Maryann Pittas, who now lives in Greece, is considered indigent by the state because her only income is Social Security and her husband’s Veteran’s Administration benefit.
That means the rehab center can sue her children under a previously obscure filial support law that can hold kids responsible for mom and dad’s debts.
“This is the first case holding an individual liable for a substantial amount of money in the absence of fault of that person,” says Katherine Pearson, director of the Elder Protection Clinic at Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law. Of two prior cases she has heard of that reached the Superior Court, one was for only $150 per month, and another involved a woman who had been stealing her mother’s money.
A previous high-profile case came up three years ago when another Pennsylvania resident was charged $300,000 for her father’s nursing home bill, but the woman settled the case with the hospital without paying, mostly because she didn’t have the means to do so.
Improper Use of Law
Litigation for the current case has been underway since 2008, and Pittas recently lost an appeal to the Superior Court after initially being found liable. He is appealing the ruling again on the grounds that he doesn’t have the income to cover the bill. Although he makes $85,000 a year, the law is only supposed to hold people liable for six times their monthly income after reasonable family expenses have been deducted, says Pearson. “In my opinion, the law is being used improperly,” the law professor says. “The court is not addressing the cap in claims involving medical assistance to the elderly. I don’t know why the court isn’t raising it. . . the average individual can’t afford a year’s salary for six months of their mother’s nursing home care.”
Liberty Nursing and Rehab Center issued a statement that claims they do not “ask family members to use their own personal funds to pay for their loved ones’ care,” even though they are doing just that.
Pearson says that although 29 states have filial support laws, outside of Pennsylvania she’s only seen it applied in South Dakota in the last 25 years. However, other states could potentially follow the Keystone State’s lead in seeking payment from debtor’s children, especially as medical costs rise and baby boomers consume more care. “I certainly think Pennsylvania’s decision could excite nursing homes in other states,” she says.
Ask an Attorney
To avoid getting stuck with an unexpected bill, seek the advice of an attorney if there’s any chance at all that your loved one’s medical coverage might not account for the cost of a rehab or nursing center stay. “Get good legal counsel about what your family’s eligibility for Medicaid is so you can make a reasonable decision about how to pay for long term care,” Pearson advises. “The key is not to allow a gap to develop because the gaps are what incentivize the nursing home to try to find someone to pay for that accumulated lump sum.”
“I think many of these cases happen when the family is naive and does not get legal assistance on their own,” she says. “This kind of case should not have to happen when there’s good legal counsel for the family at the application stage for Medicaid.”
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