Pennsylvania has had some form of law on its books imposing a duty upon a child to support indigent parents since 1771. Previously these laws were part of Pennsylvania’s Welfare Laws, but since July, 2005 they have been part of its Support Laws. These types of laws are known as “filial support laws” and in Pennsylvania the law can be found at 23 Pa. C.S.A. §4603 (hereinafter the “Pennsylvania Support Act”).

The filial support laws exist for the primary purpose of limiting the financial burden the government incurs as the “payor-of-last-resort” for support and necessary services of a person.  In other words, these laws exist in order to relieve the government from the burden of supporting poor people who have family members that are capable of paying for a poor person’s care. 

            The Pennsylvania Support Act states that the spouse, child and a parent of an indigent person are responsible for the cost to care for and maintain or financially assist the indigent person regardless of whether the indigent person is a public charge. The only two exceptions would be if the individual who has potential liability does not have the financial ability to support the indigent person, or in the case of a child who has potential liability to support a parent, if the parent abandoned the child for a period of ten years or more prior to the child reaching age 18.

An action under the Pennsylvania Support Act can be brought by the indigent individual or any public agency involved in the care of the indigent person, such as Department of Public Welfare. In addition, it has long been the law in Pennsylvania that a nursing home which provides an indigent parent with shelter and care has a sufficient interest to apply the Pennsylvania Support Act against the parent’s child.  

As the Court recognized in Savoy v. Savoy, 641 A.2d 596, 599 (Pa. Super. 1994), the Pennsylvania Support Act does not define the term “indigent”. The public assistance guidelines used by the Department of Public Welfare to determine eligibility for Medicaid are not used to determine indigent status because the Pennsylvania Support Act applies to individuals regardless of whether they are a public charge. The Savoy Court held that Pennsylvania Courts have applied the common-law definition of indigence and in doing so have held that:

The indigent person need not be helpless and in extreme want, so completely destitute of property, as to require assistance from the public.  Indigent persons are those who do not have sufficient means to pay for their own care and maintenance.  “Indigent” includes, but is not limited to, those who are completely destitute and helpless.  It also encompasses those persons who have some limited means, but whose means are not sufficient to adequately provide for their maintenance and support.

A child’s parent was deemed to be indigent because the child removed over $100,000.00 from the mother’s bank account causing the mother to be unable to pay for her care and support.  Presbyterian Medical Center v. Budd, 832 A.2d1066 (Pa. Super. 2003). Another example of the Court finding a parent indigent involved a situation where a mother received $1,000.00 per month as income and the Court determined that this was not sufficient for the mother to adequately provide for her own maintenance and support. Healthcare and Retirement Corporation of American v. Pittas, 46 A.3d 719, (Pa. Super. 2012).

The Pennsylvania Support Act does limit the amount of liability that can be assessed against an individual for support of an indigent person or services provided to them.  The amount of support liability during any 12 month period must be the lesser of (i) six times the excess of the liable individual’s average monthly income over the amount required for the reasonable support of the liable individual and other persons dependent upon the liable individual or (ii) the cost of the medical assistance for the aged person. 23 Pa.C.S.A. §4603(b). The Department of Public Welfare may adjust the liability set by Court Order, even to the point of eliminating the liability completely.  In the event there is a Court Order for an individual to pay filial support and the person fails to comply with that obligation, the liable person may face contempt charges, and if found to be in contempt, could be sentenced to up to six months in prison in addition to having to satisfy the Court Order. 23 Pa.C.S.A. §4603(d).

While not having sufficient financial ability to support the indigent person is a defense to a filial support action, mere assertion of inability to pay for the indigent parent without sufficient proof is not enough.  In Pittas, the nursing home was able to establish financial ability for a son to pay by submitting four years of the son’s tax returns and bank account statements. Pittas also held that the Pennsylvania Support Act does not require consideration of a pending Medicaid application, or that other members of the indigent person’s family may be able to support the indigent parent. Accordingly, a third party providing necessary services for an indigent parent may choose from one or more of the possible family defendants against whom to file its claim.  The family member named in the initial legal action may join any other family member allowed under the Pennsylvania Support Act, such as the indigent person’s spouse or other children of the indigent person.

There is no provision in the Pennsylvania Support Act which requires a Court to consider the good or bad behavior of a potentially liable individual. A child who has had no relationship with an indigent parent could be found to have the same liability as a child who has an ongoing relationship with the indigent parent during the same period of time. Whether a child provides care, services and comfort to the parent, or has improperly handled the parent’s assets, there is no difference in applying the statute. The statutory relationship of the relative to the indigent individual and the statutory relative’s ability to pay are the only requirements necessary under the Pennsylvania Support Act.  Presbyterian Medical Center v. Budd, supra.

The current case law in Pennsylvania now allows collection actions to be instituted against an adult child for the long-term care obligations of a parent retroactively, in addition to establishing a support obligation prospectively. Liability under the Pennsylvania Support Act has been interpreted to place an affirmative duty upon a child of an indigent person to reimburse from the child’s assets, the expenditures of a third party on behalf of an indigent parent. Albert Einstein Medical Center v. Forman, 243 A.2d 1066 (Pa. Super. 2003). In Pittas, supra, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld a Lehigh County judgment in the amount of $93,000.00 rendered in favor of a nursing home and against the son of a mother who spent six months in the facility and then relocated to Greece without paying the bill. The restaurant owner son, who was married with a child and a second on the way and claimed an annual income of $85,000.00, was found liable for the full amount of the judgment despite the fact that he did not have any contractual relationship with the nursing home; the mother had income of $1,000.00 per month; there was a pending Medicaid application for the mother; and two other siblings of the son lived in Greece.

The Pittas decision was appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but it decided not to hear the appeal. 63 A.3d 1248 (Pa. 2013).  Thus, the Superior Court decision in Pittas is currently the law of Pennsylvania with regard to filial support obligations being applied retroactively.

            Several pieces of legislation regarding the Pennsylvania Support Act were proposed in both the Senate and House of Representatives during the 2013-2014 legislative year.  All of the proposed bills would have lessened the impact of the Pennsylvania Support Act, even to the point of removing potential relative liability altogether.  However, the fact that no action has been taken on any of these bills demonstrates that Pennsylvania will continue to maintain that the government is to be the payor-of-last-resort.

Items of interest on this matter, and in particular the Pittas case, are a news article by Susanna Kim for ABC News entitled Pennsylvania Man Appeals to Court to Avoid Paying Mom’s $93,000.00 Nursing Home Bill and a video presentation posted on YouTube, entitled Elder Law Expert Katherine Pearson Explains New Family Support Decision in PA and its Policy Issues.

As with so many issues in the elder law and estate planning areas, competent legal advice is necessary, and Mosebach, Funt, Dayton & Duckworth, P.C. is available to assist you.