Child Can be Liable for Parent’s Health Care Costs

Posted on: October 10th, 2014 by Lawrence A. Friedman

Pennsylvania (like many other states) has a filial responsibility law that generally requires children with means to support an indigent parent. While it may seem unfair, a Pennsylvania court recently enforced the law to hold a son liable for his mother’s $93,000 nursing home bill despite the son’s claim that he couldn’t afford to pay. Health Care & Retirement Corporation of America v. Pittas (Pa. Super. Ct., No. 536 EDA 2011, May 7, 2012). In addition, the son bore full responsibility because his initial response to the lawsuit didn’t raise claims against other family members who could have shared the obligation.  While the case occurred in Pennsylvania, it may have repercussions throughout the country.

Another fairly recent case illustrates what can go wrong when a child signs a care facility agreement without fully understanding its terms and their ramifications.  Nursing homes may not require a child to guaranty a parent’s bill, but courts sometimes say a guaranty is enforceable because it is voluntary.  This situation typically arises where a child signs documents to admit a parent to a care facility but doesn’t have a lawyer explain the document.  In addition to so-called voluntary guaranties, care facility contracts may have other unfavorable provisions that can be difficult to understand or even notice.  Nevertheless, courts can enforce a contract against an individual who later claims he/she didn’t realize that the contract imposes undesirable obligations.

In Cook Willow Health Center v. Andrian (Conn. Super. Ct., No. CV116008672, Sept. 28, 2012), the care facility claimed the resident’s daughter’s signature on the admission papers required the daughter to take steps to pay the facility with her mother’s assets or qualify the mother for Medicaid but the daughter didn’t follow through.  The daughter tried to avoid liability based on the prohibition of guaranty requirements, but the court held that there was no guaranty.  Instead, the court said in signing the admission contract as “responsible party,” the daughter  voluntarily agreed to take steps to have the nursing home paid and the facility had a right to rely on that undertaking and sue the daughter for breach of contract.

How could the daughter have avoided liability?  First and foremost, she should have had a lawyer review the admission papers so she could make informed decisions and not agree to obligations she wasn’t prepared to honor.  While most states don’t automatically make a child liable for a parent’s health care costs, children also should be proactive to make sure parents don’t run up high bills in light of the Pittas case discussed above.   That shouldn’t be difficult since a person with little money and major health care needs often can qualify for Medicaid, although legal guidance can be essential

So what IS the take away from these two cases?  It is crucial to consult a lawyer before signing any care facility agreement (or other contract). 

A lawyer can explain the impact of admission documents and may try to negotiate changes.  For instance, FriedmanLaw often helps clients understand facility agreements and negotiate more favorable terms.  Since ignorance of contract terms doesn’t excuse their breach, it is risky to sign any contract without first consulting a lawyer.  In addition elder law attorneys like FriedmanLaw often can help people qualify for Medicaid to pay for care instead of leaving children to be saddled with high nursing home bills.  The moral of these cases  is pretty simple; consulting elder law counsel early on can yield major savings down the road.

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