Within the past few days, major media — the Philadelphia Inquirer and ABC News — published accounts about Pennsylvania’s filial responsibility law, drawing attention to the desperation caused in some families in the Commonwealth who are compelled to support their parents’ costly care needs despite their disconnection or their best efforts.
The Inquirer, from Philadelphia, published its article, “If mom can’t pay, adult child must”, by Monica Yant Kinne, on Sunday, July 12, 2009; and ABC News, from New York City, published its article, “Pay Your Parents’ Bills or Else — Little-Known State Laws Force Some to Pay Their Parents’ Nursing Home Bills” by Alice Gomstyn, on Wednesday, July 15, 2009.
The Inquirer article told the story of Don Grant, of Havertown, Pennsylvania, who was sued for care costs incurred by his mother:
This one’s going to blow baby boomers’ minds. It concerns a little-known law dating to Elizabethan England suddenly being enforced with gusto in Pennsylvania. The law can force adult children to pay their parents’ health-care costs. If Mom and Pop can’t pay, you pay. If they have the money but refuse to pay, you pay.
If you don’t, watch your credit rating sink under the weight of a legal judgment that will haunt you for life.
It happened to Don Grant. It can happen to you.
The Havertown man is nearly 50 and struggling to pay his mortgage and $100,000 in student loans incurred by his daughter, a recent Albright College grad.
Last year, Grant was sued because his mother, Diana Fichera, did not pay an $8,000 bill at a Delaware County nursing home, where she rehabilitated after surgery.* * *
Don Grant’s mother was disassociated from him, and incurred substantial bills at care facilities. However, one care facility utilized Act 43 (recodified in Pennsylvania law in 2005), as a legal ground to sue him as her responsible family member.
The ABC News article told the story of Andrea August, of Norristown, Pennsylvania, who was also sued for care costs incurred for her mother:
Could you be sued for your parents’ unpaid health care bills? It happened to Andrea August.
One spring day, the 39-year-old Pennsylvania woman was stunned to learn that a nursing home was suing her for more than $300,000 in unpaid bills related to her father, who died after spending about a year in the home, and her mother, a dementia patient still living there.
“I was devastated,” August said. “We’re living basically paycheck to paycheck. We don’t try to live beyond our means — it was just unbelievable that all of a sudden there was this debt hanging over us.”
August said that both she and her husband work two jobs each to make ends meet for themselves and their two children. She loves her parents, she said, and did what she could to help them. But footing their bills was out of the question.
“I don’t think anybody should be responsible for someone else’s bill,” she said. “You can only do so much.”
August found herself among a growing number of adult children facing legal pressure to pay their parents’ medical bills. * * *
Both articles deliver excellent reviews about the “filial support” concept, which derived from English law in the 1600s, was transported into Colonial laws, but fell into disfavor and disuse with the introduction of the federal Medicare and Medicaid systems in the mid-sixties.
Both articles note how the precarious financial situations of care facilities and the funding problems of the federal systems now lead providers to invoke those prior laws, particularly in Pennsylvania, due to the 2005 reenactment, which followed issuance of a Superior Court decision in Presbyterian Medical Center v. Budd, 832 A.2d 1066 (Pa. Super. 2003).
Elder law attorneys have known about, and have opposed, the impact of Act 43 since its reenactment in 2005 into Pennsylvania’s Domestic Relations Code, 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 4603 regarding “Relatives’ liability” (unofficial form) and its supporting Regulations (“Actions for Support”).
I noted the problems that a spotty enforcement of such a law could create for families, and provided further references. See: PA EE&F Law Blog post “Filial Support” in PA? Really?!? (07/28/08). See also: “Should you worry about your parents’ debts?” by Liz Pulliam Weston, posted on MSN Money; and “Paying for Mom: Little-Known Laws Force Families to Fund Parents’ Care” (01/10/09) by Beth Baker posted by the AARP Bulletin.
My post quoted Professor Katherine C. Pearson, who is the Director of the Elder and Consumer Protection Clinic, of Penn State – Dickinson School of Law, and who now is Chair of the Elder Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
She was quoted in both the Inquirer and ABC News articles, too.
These articles appear just as federal health care insurance proposals air nationally. Such reform should take in account remaining state filial responsibility laws, and address, at minimum, the procedural rights that should be afforded to those being charged with care costs of family members.
However, until the situation of “filial responsibility” is clarified — particularly in Pennsylvania — anyone receiving an Act 43 demand from a care facility regarding costs incurred by a family member must be vigilant. Never brush off such a demand, or else you run the risk of becoming the star of another article about filial responsibility.
Neil E. Hendershot is a practicing & teaching lawyer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who works daily in the legal areas covered by the PA EE&F Law Blog.