Nursing Home Sues Son for Mother’s Nursing Home Bill . . . and Wins

A child is responsible for the parent’s nursing home bill.  Law in Pennsylvania has long provided for children’s liability under the Domestic Relations Act, 23 Pa.C.S. 4603, made law in 2005, but goes back to 1937.  This is known as the Filial Responsibility Law. 

In the past, a child was seldom sued for the parent’s care, except in rare cases.  If a child had recently received gifts from the parent, and especially if the child had used a power of attorney to take the parent’s assets, the courts held that child responsible as a matter of public policy.

Once a parent qualifies for Medicaid, the child is relieved of liability from that point forward.  However, the parent may accumulate a large nursing home bill before applying for Medicaid and the children are held liable for this bill.

In the recent case of HCR vs. Pittas, filed May 7, 2012 in the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the son, John Pittas, was held liable for $92,943, which his mother owed to the nursing home.  John’s mother had accrued this bill during rehabilitation; she left the nursing home and left the U.S. to reside in Greece.  Since she had few assets and was not available, her son was sued and held liable under the Filial Responsibility Law.  John was not the only son, as there were two other children as well as mother’s husband who were not sued.  The court coldly ruled that John Pittas would have had to bring his two siblings to court himself in order to spread the responsibility to them.

Although a Medicaid application had been filed, it was rejected and an appeal is pending.  The Superior Court refused to wait for that to be decided and socked John Pittas with a $92,943 debt.  The court ignored statutory income formulas completely.

This case is the current state of law.  All children are now more at risk of similar liabilities for parent’s care.  The only defenses are:

1)         Child is financially unable to pay for care.  (However, the court in the Pittas case looked only at John’s income and not his obligations.)

OR

2)         If John’s mother had abandoned him for a period of at least ten years during his childhood.

The court would not consider personal circumstances.  Even if a mother was abusive and neglectful and squandered her own assets, her children are liable for huge care bills.  These exceptions are so narrow that they  provide no protection at all to children.  Children trying to pay for their kids to go to college, to save for retirement may have to pay huge sums for parents, a whole new “Sandwich Generation” problem.

Many questions are left unanswered.  If a Pennsylvania parent has several children and only one resides in Pennsylvania, it appears that child is the most at risk of being sued.  Then that child faces the terrible choice of having to bear the burden alone or drag his brothers and sisters into court.  The law even provides that a child who fails to pay a court ordered judgment for parent’s care can be put in jail!

The law may have the negative effect of driving children to place parents in nursing homes in other states where the law is less harsh; or a child may try to take care of a parent at home even where it is not in the best interests of either parent or child for health and safety of both.

In order to minimize exposure to this kind of liability, parents and children should work together to plan for care early, file for Medicaid early, and consult an elder law attorney immediately.  Senior citizens and children alike should contact legislators to seek changes in the law to prevent this harsh liability.

By Lisa Pepicelli Youngs, Esq.

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