Avoid Personal Liability for your Parent’s Nursing Home Care


There are certain obligations you anticipate when your parents age, such as taking them to medical appointments, helping them balance their checkbook, visiting assisted living and nursing homes to choose their new residence, and facilitating the move. You may even expect to help your parent apply for Medicaid to help pay for his or her stay at a nursing home. But chances are you never expected that the nursing home could come after your personal assets to pay for your parents’ care.

Most people do not realize that Pennsylvania has a statutory law which may require a child to contribute to the support of a financially needy parent. The heading of the statute section is “Relatives’ Liability” but this type of law is often referred to as a filial support law. The law makes a child who has “sufficient financial ability” responsible “to care for and maintain or financially assist” his or her parent who is an “indigent person.”

You probably thought that Medicaid is in place to pay nursing home bills for indigent seniors. However, many of you may be shocked to learn of the strict asset limitations to qualify for Medicaid, and that there are any number of ways to make a mistake in the Medicaid application process and be denied benefits even if you are indigent.

Take the case of Maryann Pittas and her son, John. In 2007-08 Maryann spent six months in an Allentown nursing home for skilled nursing care after rehabbing from injuries suffered in a car accident. After she left the facility Maryann relocated to Greece, leaving behind a $93,000 unpaid nursing home bill.

Maryann’s son, a restaurateur named John, remained in Pennsylvania with his young and growing family. The nursing home sued John under the filial support law and won. While Maryann had applied for Medicaid to help pay for her stay, the Department of Public Welfare denied the application. We do not know exactly why the application was denied, but we do know that the court declared Maryann “indigent.”

John appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, which also sided with the nursing home. Although the Medicaid eligibility question was pending on appeal, neither the trial court nor the Superior Court accepted John’s assertion that the nursing home’s claim against him should wait until the Medicaid decision process was completed. John, a father of two with an average annual income of $85,000 is stuck with a $93,000 judgment accruing interest at 6% per year.

How can you avoid this situation? Consult with an attorney experienced with Medicaid planning and applications as early as possible in the process. The attorney will examine your parents’ specific financial situation and advise them regarding any planning opportunities that may be available, and if, when and how they should submit an application for Medicaid to the Department of Public Welfare.

By James Jacquette