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Son Liable for Mom's $93,000 Nursing Home Bill Under 'Filial Responsibility' Law

Some 29 states currently have laws making adult children responsible for their parents if their parents can't afford to take care of themselves.  These “filial responsibility” laws have rarely been enforced, but six years ago when federal rules made it more difficult to qualify for Medicaid long-term care coverage, some elder law attorneys predicted that nursing homes would start using the laws as a way to get care paid for. 

It looks like this is starting to happen.  In May 2012, a Pennsylvania appeals court found a son liable for his mother's $93,000 nursing home bill under the state's filial responsibility law. Health Care & Retirement Corporation of America v. Pittas (Pa. Super. Ct., No. 536 EDA 2011, May 7, 2012).  In March 2013 the state's Supreme Court declined to hear the case, meaning that the ruling is final.

Facts of the Case

John Pittas' mother entered a nursing home for rehabilitation following a car crash. She later left the nursing home and moved to Greece, and a large portion of her bill at the nursing home went unpaid. Mr. Pittas' mother applied to Medicaid to cover her care, but that application is still pending.

Meanwhile, the nursing home sued Mr. Pittas for nearly $93,000 under the state's filial responsibility law, which requires a child to provide support for an indigent parent. The trial court ruled in favor of the nursing home, and Mr. Pittas appealed. Mr. Pittas argued in part that the court should have considered alternate forms of payment, such as Medicaid or going after his mother's husband and her two other adult children.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court, an appeals court, agreed with the trial court that Mr. Pittas is liable for his mother's nursing home debt.  The court held that the law does not require it to consider other sources of income or to wait until Mrs. Pittas’s Medicaid claim is resolved.  It also said that the nursing home had every right to choose which family members to pursue for the money owed.

First of a ‘Wave of Lawsuits’?

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 made it much more difficult for the elderly to transfer assets before qualifying for Medicaid coverage of nursing home care. With enactment of the law, advocates for the elderly said that nursing homes would likely be flooded with residents who need care but have no way to pay for it, and that in states that have filial responsibility laws, the nursing homes might seek reimbursement from the residents' children.

After Pennsylvania re-enacted its filial support law in the mid-2000s, Williamsport ElderLawAnswers member attorney Jeffrey A. Marshall forecast that the new Medicaid law would trigger a wave of lawsuits involving adult children.

"Litigation between nursing homes and children is likely to flourish," Marshall wrote in the January 20, 2006, issue of his firm's Elder Care Law Alert.  (To read Marshall’s recent blog post on the Pittas ruling, click here.)

In 2005, the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative policy group, released an issue brief proposing that states begin enforcing filial responsibility laws in order to reduce long-term care costs. 

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For the full text of the Pennsylvania court’s decision in the Pittas case, go to: http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/A36025_11.pdf

For more on filial responsibility laws, click here.

For an AARP map showing the states with filial support laws and providing citations to the relevant state law, click here.

For more on Medicaid's transfer rules, click here