Did you know clients could be liable for their parents’ nursing home bills under a little known law on the books in most U.S. states? This summer, several news outlets picked up the story of a Pennsylvania man who was billed about $93,000 after his retired parents were injured in an auto accident and moved into a nursing home.

The parents, ages 65 and 79, eventually moved to Greece to stay with relatives. That’s when the nursing home tried to collect on the debt — not by billing Medicare or mom and dad but their son.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal (http://tinyurl.com/7lj4kf8), a Pennsylvania court initially found the man liable for the debt under a so-called “filial support” or responsibility law. Although rarely used, 29 states have filial support laws, which allow companies to go after adult family members for unpaid medical bills.

Are your clients protected?

Whether you are working with a retiree or someone caring for one, you should urge clients to know the law before signing any paperwork that could burden not only their own estate but their children’s— and grandchildren’s.

U.S. filial laws have been on the books since this country was founded and are based on England’s Poor Act of 1601. Essentially, they maintain that individuals who are “financially able” are responsible for supporting their indigent relatives. In half a dozen states, grandchildren are considered responsible parties as well.

What can happen to families?

AARP magazine wrote (http://tinyurl.com/45cdct5) about a Florida woman sued for $50,000 by her mother’s nursing home. The company threatened to put a lien on her house. An elder law attorney fought the suit, and the charges were dropped. However, many states can impose liens for unpaid care bills.

In addition to liens, courts can garnish an adult child’s wages and any judgment will appear as an unpaid debt on an individual’s credit report. In some states, there are criminal penalties for family members who don’t pay up.

Legal protection is available

Experts agree the best defense to ensure a family’s financial security is planning. Helping a client understand the laws applicable in your area can empower them to make sure their family is protected.

A financial solution is investing in long-term care insurance, which can cover the gap between the cost of care and what the government pays through Medicare. Legal protections are also available. For example, these laws are not applicable in all states.

Finally, most states’ filial support laws are vague and do not define what makes one “financially able” to pay for a family member’s eldercare or what makes a parent “indigent.” This opens the door to legal appeals even if your client is asked to pay under the law.

For a complete list of states with filial laws and the applicable statute numbers for your state, visit http://tinyurl.com/9xyv3j6.

We hope this information was useful to you and helps your clients and their families. If you have a specific case or a question, don’t hesitate to call our office. As always, feel free to call us for further advice or to share your ideas.

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