Filial Responsibility

Q. I was on Avvo recently looking up “filial responsibility.” I saw you answered a question where a husband sued his wife’s children to pay him monthly for the care of their mother in a dementia unit, and they were ordered to pay him $2,000 a month over and above the actual cost of her care.

I also saw that you wrote an article on your blog about parents who were being pursued for their deceased son’s medical bills. I am concerned that my mother and father may be faced with the same situation, since there is an outstanding balance that my brother couldn’t pay before he died last year. I heard filial responsibility laws were rarely enforced. However, I do live in Virginia, a state that has such a law, as you have pointed out in your articles. Do you think my parents have a reason to be concerned? If something should happen to my folks, should I be worried that debt collectors will come after me?

A. More than half of U.S. states, including Virginia and Maryland, have filial responsibility laws, which say adult children are responsible for financially helping parents who are unable to pay for care. In certain situations, as in the article you described, parents can also be responsible for debts of adult children. As you mentioned, the laws were rarely used in the past, but this has been changing.

Updates in the Mohn Situation

To remind our readers, last year a debt collector pursued Peg and Bob Mohn of Bangor, Maine for their late son Earl’s unpaid medical bills. Earl wasn’t married and had been sick off and on for most of his adult life. He had no assets when he died that creditors could have filed claims against. The Mohns, who are in their 70s, did not budget to cover their adult son’s medical expenses.

To collect the debts, a lawyer by the name of James Havassy of the Hamilton Law group (based in Pennsylvania) sent the Mohns multiple letters demanding payment of debts to physicians’ offices that had treated Earl several years before he died.

The letters the Hamilton Law Group stated the following:

Notice is hereby given to you that a spouse, parent and child of an indigent person all have the legal responsibility to care for and maintain or financially assist them,” said the letter, signed by Havassy, who is an attorney. “Therefore, in accordance with the Filial Responsibility Law, as we can prove that the debts of your relative were not timely paid as they became due, you are fully responsible for this debt.

Believing they had no other choice, the Mohns set up a payment plan and had been paying $50 a month since October toward their son’s debt of about $2,000. However, payment was not deducted from their account in May of this year and beyond. Why? Because, that month, the Pennsylvania state attorney general’s office proceeded with a lawsuit against the Hamilton Law Group, claiming that the debt collector improperly used the state’s Colonial-era Filial Responsibility Law “to coerce payments from debtors’ relatives, who were not responsible for the debt.”

The lawsuit describes what the Hamilton Law Group did as “an unfair and unconscionable means to collect a debt, and the collection of these debts was not expressly permitted by law.” The lawsuit cited six examples, including the Mohns. One woman received collection notices for an anesthesia bill owed by her adult son, who has his own health insurance. A man was pursued for the cost of his mother’s and adult sister’s dental services. Another man was pursued for his father’s debt to a cardiologist. Two of the people claimed their credit profiles were “negatively marked.”

The lawsuit seeks restitution for the people affected, includingthe Mohns, and a court order barring the allegedly improper methods of debt collection.

Is There Still Reason to be Concerned?

Filial Responsibility Laws were drafted centuries ago so family members would take responsibility for each other and the government wouldn’t have to. Its use waned when the modern public support system was developed, but the law gained new life in 2012 when the state Superior Court ruled that George Pittas, of Allentown, PA, was responsible for nearly $93,000 in bills from the rehabilitation center that had treated his mother after a car accident.

Important considerations about Filial Responsibility laws:

-The law doesn’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.

-The law is not designed to collect money from family members in situations where public money is available and has been applied for.

-To enforce filial responsibility laws, a nursing home usually needs to prove that a resident can’t pay in order for an adult child of that resident to be responsible.

-There is also no consensus about enforcing filial responsibility laws among states. Such laws remain on the books in Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, and in the territory of Puerto Rico.

-You can still be on the hook for medical bills if you share any property or financial accounts with your parents. If you jointly own a home, for example, the state may put a lien, or hold, on the property, and require you to repay Medicaid benefits when you decide to sell the home.

Know Your Rights

If you or your parents are contacted by a debt collector, you are entitled to receive paperwork that explains how much you owe and to whom you owe it. If you don’t believe you owe the money, you should ire an attorney and within 30 days you should write a letter to the debt collector explaining that.

If you or your parents are asked to pay a relative’s debt under the Filial Responsibility Law, contact the state attorney general’s office (800-441-2555 or http://www.attorneygeneral.gov).

You can file complaints about debt collectors with that office, the Federal Trade Commission (202-326-2222, http://www.ftc.gov) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (855-411-2372, http://www.consumerfinance.gov).

Plan Ahead

There is only one way to make sure you do not fall victim to any filial (or parental) support action, and that is by planning ahead. Adult 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.

Elder Law Asset Protection

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. In your situation, 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 us today to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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