The adult son of a nursing home patient is legally on the hook for her $93,000 in unpaid nursing home bills, an appeals court in Pennsylvania recently decided.
It doesn’t matter that the son never signed a contract with the nursing home; he’s still liable for his mother’s debt, the court said.
The case in the latest in a series of lawsuits in which nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other institutions have sued the adult children of their residents for the cost of their care.
These cases are a warning sign to the elderly and to their children about the importance of consulting an elder law attorney as soon as possible to plan for the costs of long-term care. Without proper planning, many middle-aged children could be faced with enormous bills they weren’t expecting.
In the Pennsylvania case, John Pittas’ mother entered a nursing home for rehabilitation after a car crash. Later, she left the nursing home and moved to Greece, leaving a large portion of her bill at the nursing home unpaid. She applied to Medicaid to cover the cost of her care, but that application is still pending.
The nursing home sued John under the state’s “filial responsibility” law. This is an old law that says that if a person doesn’t have enough money to take care of their own needs, then the person’s relatives – such as a spouse or child – are obligated to pay for their care if they can afford to do so.
Some 30 states currently have laws making adult children responsible for their parents if their parents can’t afford to take care of themselves. These laws have rarely been used in the past, but they are increasingly being invoked by nursing homes and other institutions seeking payment for large bills.
In court, John claimed that the nursing home should have to wait until his mother’s Medicaid claim was resolved. But the court said that the nursing home wasn’t obligated to wait for the government.
John also argued that the nursing home shouldn’t have singled him out, and should also have sued his mother’s husband and his siblings. But the court said the nursing home was free to choose whichever relative or relatives it wanted to sue.
A similar case occurred several years ago when Betty Budd transferred most of her assets to her daughter Elizabeth, then entered a nursing home. When Betty died, she owed the nursing home $96,000. The nursing home sued Elizabeth for the money.
In that case, a court said that Elizabeth would have been off the hook if Betty had qualified for Medicaid. However, Betty and Elizabeth hadn’t taken the proper steps to qualify Betty for Medicaid, and that meant that Elizabeth was liable for the bills.
These cases highlight the urgency of making plans for long-term care, and understanding the often tricky rules involving Medicaid and other programs. Failure to do so could not only cause problems for seniors, but could also leave their children financially hobbled and wipe out an important legacy.