Filial Responsibility Laws, also known as Filial Support Laws, are relatively unknown. More than half of US states (including Puerto Rico) could hold adult children financially responsible for their parents’ long-term care. If your parents live in one of the following states, you could be held legally responsible for their healthcare: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.
At one point, 45 US states had statutes that left adult children responsible for their parents’ nursing home care. After Medicaid was established in 1965, many states repealed these laws. The filial law system was adopted from England’s “Poor Laws”, a set of social measures meant to support low income citizens that could not afford care. Medicaid and Social Security helped to reduce the need for these laws.
While filial laws are rarely enforced, the rising cost of healthcare and longer life expectancies increase the likelihood of elderly individuals outliving their savings, which could rekindle these laws’ implementation. If your parents live in a state with filial responsibility laws and they start to accumulate healthcare bills they cannot afford, the provider may be within their rights to sue you for payment, and win. Some states can even extend criminal penalties to children who deny covering care. For example, according to North Carolina law, refusal to support your parents could result in a Class 2 misdemeanor that could earn you up to 120 days in jail.
If a parent becomes eligible for Medicaid, then the government will pay for nursing home care in most cases, and these laws become irrelevant. The Medicaid Estate Recovery Program (MERP) will sometimes try to recover the cost through the recipient’s estate after death. However, Medicaid does not require that adult children contribute directly to their parents’ care. In cases where the child and parent share assets, such as joint bank accounts or jointly owned real estate, the state may take action against these assets when trying to recover long-term care costs.
The best way to avoid issues with these laws is to get involved with your parents’ financial planning to ensure they have a plan to pay for long-term care themselves. An estate planning and elder law attorney can help create a plan to protect your parents’ assets while alleviating you of your filial responsibility. It is also important for families to consult with an attorney when applying for Medicaid or when beginning to plan Medicaid strategies, such as changing asset ownership or spending down assets.