Are Children Responsible for Parents' Nursing Home Bills?

Senior woman and adult daughter sit together at table looking worried about financial documents and bills..The adult children of elderly parents in many states could be held liable for their parents' nursing home bills. The children could even be subject to criminal penalties. But how often does this happen?

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 includes restrictions on the ability of the elderly to transfer assets before qualifying for Medicaid coverage of nursing home care. Essentially, the law attempts to save the Medicaid program money by shifting more of the cost of long-term care to families and nursing homes.

One of the ways it does this is by starting the penalty period for transferred assets on the date when the individual would have qualified for Medicaid coverage of nursing home care if not for the transfer. In other words, the penalty period does not begin until the nursing home resident is out of funds, meaning there is no money to pay the nursing home for however long the penalty period lasts. 

The Growing Elderly Population Could Increase Cases of Filial Responsibility

As the elderly population grows, it's predicted that nursing homes will likely be flooded with residents who need care but have no way to pay for it. In states that have "filial responsibility laws," the nursing homes may seek reimbursement from the residents' children. These rarely-enforced laws, which are on the books in 29 states, hold adult children responsible for financial support of indigent parents and, in some cases, medical and nursing home costs. Pennsylvania actually re-enacted its law in 2005, making children liable for the financial support of their indigent parents. 

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 for filial nonsupport, and three states allow both civil and criminal actions.

What Can You Do To Protect Yourself?

There have been few cases where adult children have actually been forced to pay a parent's nursing home bill. Often, cases in which children have been forced to pay up involved fraud or a disregard for managing the costs incurred. While the risks of filial responsibility laws are minimal, watch out when helping parents sign a nursing home residency agreement for long-term care services. Read the contract carefully. The Nursing Home Reform Act generally prevents a nursing home from requiring a person other than the resident to assume responsibility for care expenses. However, some nursing homes have a clause in their contract to attempt to bill or sue residents’ family members and friends for the cost of care.

If you're uncertain about the residency contract you are about to sign, contact an elder law attorney near you. They will review the contract to ensure you aren't held responsible for expenses once your loved one's finances are exhausted.