Filial Responsibility: Elderly Couple May Be Responsible For Son’s Medical Bills

Peg Mohn (Picture from The Morning Call)

Filial responsibility laws obligate adult children to pay for their indigent parents’ food, clothing, shelter and medical needs. When the children fail to do so, nursing homes, hospitals, and other creditors can file lawsuits against the adult children to recover the cost of caring for the parents. Not only can they sue the children for the money, but in some states adult children can go to jail if they fail to provide filial support.

In some states, this type of legal liability may go both ways – requiring parents to pay the debts of adult children as well as the other way around.  For example, Peg and Bob Mohn’s son, Earl, died at age 47, leaving behind unpaid medical bills. Now according to an article in The Morning Call, debt collectors are trying to collect the debt from his elderly parents.

In the case of the Mohns, their son Earl wasn’t married and had been ill off and on for most of his adult life. He had no assets when he died that creditors could have filed claims against. As you can imagine, the Mohns, who are in their 70s with a granddaughter who is about to go to college, did not budget to cover their adult son’s medical expenses.

Filial support laws aren’t new. In fact, they were initially derived from England’s 16th century “Poor Laws.” At one time, as many as 45 U.S. states had statutes obligating an adult child to care for his or her parents. Currently 30 states, including Virginia and Maryland, have filial responsibility laws. According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, 21 states allow a civil court action to obtain financial support or cost recovery, 12 states impose criminal penalties on children who do not support their parents, and three states allow both civil and criminal actions. Some states repealed their filial support laws after Medicaid took a greater role in providing relief to elderly patients without means. Other states, including Virginia and Maryland, did not, and a large number of filial support laws remain on the books.

Filial responsibility laws have recently been increasingly getting enforced to recover medical expenses, including Medicaid payments. For instance, in May 2012, John Pittas received a nursing-home bill of $93,000 for his mother, and was held liable. Read another example of a filial responsibility case on our blog.

Filial responsibility laws don’t always make parents and their children responsible for each other’s debts. The debtor must be indigent, and the person targeted for payment must have the ability to pay.

In the case of the Mohns and for adult children with elderly parents, the only way to make sure you do not fall victim to any filial (or parental) support action is by planning ahead. Children with elderly parents need to be proactive regarding how their parents are financing their long-term care. Some families of modest means may assume Medicaid will cover a parent’s care once the parent has depleted savings and other resources. But it’s a huge mistake to assume that Medicaid will be easy to obtain.

Medicaid laws are the most complex laws in existence, with 8 separate bodies of law (4 at the Federal level and 4 at the state level) dealing with Medicaid and Medicaid eligibility.  To do proper Medicaid asset protection planning, families need the help of an experienced elder law attorney, preferably a Certified Elder Law Attorney such as myself.  The best time to do Medicaid Asset Protection planning is now.  Whether your parents are years away from needing nursing home care, are already in a nursing facility, or somewhere in between, the time to plan is now, not when your parents are about to run out of money.  Call The Fairfax, Fredericksburg, and Washington, D.C. Elder Law Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C. today at 703-691-1888 in Fairfax, 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg, or 1-800-399-FARR in Washington, D.C. to make an appointment for a consultation.

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.


  1. What an interesting post. Here in Texas there is a legal responsibility to support your minor children and spouse, of course, but no filial responsibility law like this. I had never even heard of it. I’ve told clients that they cannot “inherit debt” but I guess in some states, it’s possible to be held liable for debts of an impoverished parent or even an impoverished adult child.


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