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Understanding Parental Support Laws (and Their Financial Impacts)

Published April 6, 2021

5 minute read

David Ning

By David Ning

We all want to be able to take care of our parents as they age, should they need it. I know every family’s dynamic is a bit different. However, I personally couldn’t fandom living a comfortable life while my mom struggled to make ends through her golden years. Despite that, I do know that some people go ahead and live large while their aging parents struggle financially. If that’s you, you need to be careful. You could actually end up sued one day. That’s because 26 states (plus Puerto Rico) have what’s known as parental support laws on the books. Here’s a list of them all. Also called filial support laws, these laws states that children are on the hook for their parents’ basic needs.

Under these laws, children are expected to provide for the parents’ food, housing, and medical care needs. That means adult children are not only expected to provide for food and a place to live, but may also be responsible for unpaid medical bills or nursing home costs.

Wait, Really? Parental Support Laws?

These laws have been around since colonial times. At one time, a full 45 states had filial support laws on the books. The thinking behind these laws was to make certain family would take care of aging or ailing members. That was preferred to having elderly citizens rely on public resources. However, many states repealed their filial support laws when Medicaid began providing more relief to those who needed it.

You should know that very few states actually enforce parental support laws. However, there have been cases in North Dakota and Pennsylvania that indicate what adult children might be in for if more long-term care providers take advantage of the laws. Here is what you need to know, starting with a couple real life examples.

Parental Support Laws in Pennsylvania

A Pennsylvania superior court ruled that an adult child owed his mother’s nursing home $93,000, based upon his ability to pay. In this case, the mother, Maryann Pittas, was in a rehabilitation facility for six months after she broke both her legs in a car accident. Since she didn’t have her own Medicaid coverage completely in order, she was unable to pay for her treatment. After leaving the facility, she relocated to Greece to live with extended family.

The rehab facility sued Maryann’s son, John Pittas, for the full amount of what she owed. After several years of litigation, the Superior Court ruled in May 2012 that Pittas was liable. The court based their decision upon Pittas’s ability to pay. He only made $85,000 per year as a restaurant manager, but he was slapped a $93,000 judgment — with interest accruing at 6% a year. Yikes!

Parental Support Laws in North Dakota

The North Dakota case involved Elden Linderkamp, who was found ultimately responsible for $104,000 in his parents’ unpaid nursing home debt. The nursing home claimed that Elden was responsible for the debt because his parents had transferred him property. Court records revealed that Elden’s parents had sold him their farm at below market value just two months before they entered the nursing home. The nursing home successfully argued that this transaction was fraudulent, as the parents were only doing it to artificially deplete their assets.

They (wrongly) assumed that the nursing home wouldn’t be able to sue them for unpaid bills if they didn’t have any assets to claim. The parental support laws, however, meant that Elden could be found liable for the costs — which he was. So don’t try to “beat the system” by stripping your elderly parents of all their assets and then sticking them in a home with no intention of paying. Especially if you live in North Dakaota.

Healthcare Gaps

There are gaps in Medicare and Medicaid. If your parents are on either plan, it’s important to remember that nursing home coverage is limited. Certain conditions must be met in order for your parent’s long-term care to be covered. Additionally, that coverage usually lapses after 100 days.

Once that happens, (and if there is no long-term care insurance), patients must pay for their own care until they have depleted their resources. At that point, they can be eligible for Medicaid. Unfortunately, applying for Medicaid can be a convoluted process. Also, there may be a gap in coverage between paying privately and being eligible for Medicaid, which can cause further headaches.

It’s a mistake to assume that Medicare and Medicaid will completely take care of your parents. So make sure you know exactly what is (and isn’t) covered, so you don’t mistakenly rack up huge bills that your family can’t cover.

Fines and Jail Time

It’s not just costly lawsuits and expensive judgements. You can actually go to jail for failing to support your parents. This isn’t the case for every state, but some states regard the refusal of support a misdemeanor. In North Carolina, for example, an adult child can face jail time up to 60 days for the first offense and up to 120 days for any subsequent convictions.

That’s not all. Remember that even misdemeanor convictions remain on your record permanently. This means any future employers or landlords will see it if they do a background check on you. Even if an employer is lenient on employers with criminal records, do you really want anyone to know that you were jailed for refusing to support your own parents? We didn’t think so.

Be Properly Insured

Long-term care insurance can help you avoid some of these issues. This type of insurance will cover your parents’ care whenever they are no longer able to perform daily activities. There are some caveats to long-term care insurance, though. For instance, the elimination period is a span of anywhere between 20 and 120 days. That means the policy-holder (or their children) will have to pay out of pocket before the coverage kicks in. Also, long-term care insurance usually requires the policy-holder to pay for the care first and then submit proof of service for reimbursement.

Even with these additional long-term care insurance headaches, it’s still a smart idea to have this kind of policy in place for your parents. It will still end up cheaper than finding yourself on the hook for a hefty nursing home bill. Since long-term care insurance premiums go up with the age and failing health of the policy-holder, it’s cheaper to buy it when your parents are still relatively younger and healthier. The best time to get long-term care insurance is right now, as the costs will only go up.

The Bottom Line

Parental support laws are, in many ways, a throwback to an earlier time. However, as long as they laws remain on the books, it’s important to know the details. Your own family could get hit with a huge unexpected expense if you aren’t aware of how these laws could be used. Even though they are slowly disappearing (especially as the push for universal healthcare continue to pick up momentum), you don’t want to be caught holding the bag if your parents struggle with their basic living expenses as they age. So protect yourself (and your parents) by knowing the laws. Then take it one step further and ensure your parents have sufficient healthcare insurance as live out their retirement.

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David Ning

Experienced Finance Writer

David is a published author, entrepreneur and a proud dad. He firmly believes that anyone can build a solid financial foundation as long as they are willing to learn. He runs MoneyNing.com, where he discusses every day money issues to encourage the masses to think about their finances more often.

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