Most Americans know they’ll likely have the moral responsibility to offer their parents some support as they get older and lose the ability to care for themselves. But, did you know that your clients might actually be legally liable for their parents’ care as well? Outlandish as it may seem, 29 states still have what are known as “filial support laws” on their books. Though the specifics vary from state to state, these statutes, mostly remnants from the colonial era, give nursing homes and other health care providers an avenue to seek restitution from adult children for their parents' unpaid bills. Some states even require the potential support of grandparents and siblings as well.
Punishments vary, with some states holding adult children civilly liable, while others go so far as to impose criminal(!) sanctions. The universal constant of the various statutes is that the parent, though he need not necessarily be elderly, must be “indigent” or unable to provide for their own support.
Why are we talking about this fairly obscure set of statutes, which often lay dormant for decades in between invocations? Well, a recent Pennsylvania case (interestingly, most recent filial support-related litigation seems to occur in either Pennsylvania or South Dakota), In re Skinner, 2014 WL 5033258, decided on Oct 8, 2014, has brought them back to the surface. In this case, two brothers, Thomas and William, were sued by their mother’s assisted living facility for unpaid bills. Thomas was found liable and a default judgment was entered against him for $32,225. He subsequently sought to discharge the debt in bankruptcy proceedings, which would, presumably, force the burden onto William. William initiated proceedings to stop the discharge. The court found in favor of Thomas, stating that William lacked standing to challenge the discharge.
The specifics of this case, though included above for completeness’ sake, aren’t terribly important. What’s notable is the specter of these statutes rising into the national consciousness once again. Though government programs, such as Medicaid, have largely sapped these decrees of their initial purpose, and many states abolished them as a result, some simply never got around to it. As such, these laws remain technically in force as landmines waiting to explode under unwary clients.
This has been the unfortunate situation for several decades now, and we still haven’t seen many of these cases, but that may soon start to change. Skyrocketing long-term care (LTC) costs, a poor economy and an impending glut of demand from the aging boomer population may send care providers searching for new ways to cover themselves against potential losses from unpaid bills. It’s important to check if your clients with older parents live in states that have such laws, even if they haven’t been enforced in a while, and to alter their plans accordingly. If possible, the parents should be included in these meetings as well, as their existing LTC planning, if any, will inform what your clients must do. Planning for a client’s own LTC is already an undertaking, he needs to know as soon as possible if he (legally) has to factor in his parents’ LTC as well.