The goal of most parents is to leave some sort of inheritance, be it large or small, to their children. However, several clients have recently been asking me about a Pennsylvania law that could cause the opposite result and leave their children with significant debt. The law they are asking about is commonly referred to as the filial responsibility law, and it requires spouses, children and parents of indigent persons to care for and financially assist them.
The law tends to rear its ugly head in situations like the following. A parent goes into a nursing home and generates various nursing home expenses, including medical bills. Typically, if the parent is unable to pay those amounts, they can apply for Medicaid to pay the bills. However, in the cases where Medicaid is denied, incomplete or delayed, the nursing home turns to the filial responsibility law, which gives them standing to sue the children of the parent.
The children then have the legal responsibility to pay the nursing home bills, which could be somewhat significant. Moreover, if the children fail to comply with the law, they can be held in contempt of court and, if the court finds that the failure to comply was intentional, the court may sentence an individual to up to six months in prison. While that result is a worst case scenario and extreme, it is nonetheless possible.
There are some exceptions to the filial responsibility law. First, it does not apply to children who do not have the financial ability to support their parents. Second, if the indigent parent had abandoned a child for ten continuous years while the child was a minor, the child will not be required to foot his or her parent's bill.
As a result, if you have a low-income parent who is or will be in a nursing home in the near future, it behooves you to educate yourself on the Medicaid process. I would also strongly suggest meeting with an elder law attorney who can help you with that process. For more information, please also see the Medicaid website.