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The long arm of nursing home debt

Whether you have your finances in order or are struggling to get ahead, receiving notice that someone is holding you responsible for another person's debt is rarely welcome news. In your case, you may be concerned that the nursing home or long-term care facility where your parent is staying will inform you that you owe thousands of dollars in unpaid expenses for your parent's care.

This is called "filial responsibility." At least 30 states have dusted off laws that may hold you liable for the debt of your family member. These laws, dating back to the 16th century, fell out of use when the government began to insure medical coverage for the poor through Medicaid in the 1960's. However, not every state repealed its filial responsibility laws, and many of those that did not are now invoking them.

What has changed?

People are living longer, but not necessarily healthier, lives. In fact, millions of people, like your parent, require years of costly care and treatment for chronic conditions such as dementia. As resources dwindle, the expectation is that they will apply for Medicaid to pick up payments for their continued care.

However, if your parent does not apply for benefits before his or her funds run out, the nursing home may contact you to pick up the bill. Perhaps your parents, in an effort to preserve some family assets, made a gift to you or your siblings of money or property. This may make your parent ineligible for Medicaid for a certain period of time, typically five years, during which the bills will continue to accrue.

Will you be responsible for the debt?

Even if you live in a state that has repealed the filial responsibility law, such as New York, you may still be liable for the debt if your parent lives in a state where the laws are still on the books. Any number of people may file a lawsuit invoking filial responsibility:

  • Your parent
  • A sibling or other family member who is contacted for payment
  • The long-term facility where your parent is staying
  • Any other third party who has a financial interest

You may be exempt from responsibility if you can demonstrate that your parent was cruel to you or abandoned you.

How can you avoid this situation?

Planning is often the key to avoiding unpleasant financial surprises. Understanding the limitations of Medicaid is vital if you want to preserve your parent's estate and make sure he or she qualifies for benefits before personal resources run out. However, Medicaid is a complicated program to understand, and seeking the help of an attorney may be in your best interests.

Doing this sooner, rather than later, will reduce the possibility that your parent will spend years waiting for eligibility with no resources to pay for his or her needs. An attorney with years of elder law experience will help you plan for your parent's future and ensure that his or her eligibility for Medicaid is not jeopardized and family assets are protected.

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