More rambling on Pennsylvania’s law requiring a child to support an indigent parent….

About two years ago I posted a blog discussing Pennsylvania’s “filial support law,” which at that time had been made are part of the Pennsylvania Support Act as set forth at 23 Pa. C.S.A. § 4603 (See “Can You Be Liable for the Bills and Support of an Indigent Parent in Pennsylvania?”) Pennsylvania continues to be one of 29 states that have some type of filial support law. In most of these states, these types of laws are rarely enforced, but Pennsylvania is the notable exception.

Usually the existence of some type of fraudulent conduct or questionable practice on the part of a spouse or child was part of a finding by the Court that created the basis upon which a person could be found liable for the payment of an indigent person’s debts with regard to maintenance and support, and especially caregiver and nursing home expenses. This changed when the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Health Care and Retirement Corporation of America v. Pittas, 46 A.3d 719 (Pa. Super. 2012) confirmed that a nursing home has the right to obtain payment from the son of a former nursing home resident after the mother fled the country without paying a $93,000 bill. Even though the mother had applied for Medicaid and left the country before there was a decision on her application, the nursing home sued her adult son for payment. Unlike the previous cases of this nature, there was no finding that the son had engaged in any type of questionable practice concerning his mother’s assets, or that he was in any way involved with his mother’s care at the nursing home. He simply was a child who was financially able to pay the debt.

In June, 2015, a U.S. Court of Appeals addressed a matter of a delinquent nursing home bill that involved New York residents and a decedent who had been a resident in a Pennsylvania nursing home. In Eades v. Kennedy, P.C. Law Offices, Docket No. 14-104-cv, the husband of the decedent agreed he would use his wife’s assets to pay for her nursing home care pursuant to a written agreement signed at the time of admission. When the wife died, the nursing home claimed an outstanding balance of approximately $8,000 for its nursing care services, and it engaged the Kennedy Law Offices to pursue the debt when the husband failed to pay the bill. In addition to suing the husband, the law firm also sued a daughter, who had allegedly transferred the mother’s assets into her name after her mother’s death. The daughter, in turn, sued the law firm in New York Federal District Court alleging various violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a Federal law. One of the arguments presented by the daughter was that the law firm’s claim was premised on Pennsylvania’s filial support law which she argued is preempted by a Federal law known as the Nursing Home Reform Act (NHRA). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected the daughter’s argument by holding that since the central purpose of the NHRA is to improve the quality of care for Medicaid eligible nursing home residents, as well as protecting the rights of nursing home residents in connection with the admission policies of a nursing facility, there is nothing in the NHRA that indicates its purpose is to shield family members of nursing home residents from financial responsibility for a resident’s nursing home care. Because the Pennsylvania indigent support statute does not condition the continuing care of the indigent person on a family member’s financial support, the Appellate Court found that a nursing home can pursue collection from the spouse or child of an indigent resident to pay for the resident’s nursing home care, pursuant to the statute, so long as the nursing home does not condition the resident’s admission, expedited admission or continued stay on a third-party guarantee of payment.

A further application and extension of the Pennsylvania Support Act occurred in the case of Eori v. Eori, (Pa. Super. Ct. 1342 WDA 2014, August 7, 2015). The Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the decision of the Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court, which found that a son is required to pay for his mother’s care under Pennsylvania filial responsibility laws, even though the mother did not have unpaid bills, and the son claimed he had abusive childhood. Mrs. Eori is a 90-year old woman, who requires 24-hour care to live at home, and her only income is a small Social Security payment which is not sufficient to entirely pay for the care. One of Mrs. Eori’s children, who is agent for her under a Power of Attorney, sued on her behalf two of Mrs. Eori’s other children to force them to help pay for her caregivers at home. One of the children sued claimed as a defense that he was abused as a child and did not have a good relationship with his mother as an adult. He also claimed he had other financial obligations, including paying for a stepchild’s college education. The Superior Court, in upholding the County Court’s decision, ordered the son to pay for some of his mother’s care and found that the existence of a bad relationship with his mother was not a defense to the support claim made against him. In addition, the financial obligations of supporting a stepchild in college were found to be insufficient evidence of the inability to contribute toward the cost of the mother’s care, and the son was ordered to pay $400 per month.

It is not uncommon for families to have strong bonds between parent and child and among siblings, which can result in some financial arrangement where responsibility for the care of a parent would be assumed or shared. However, there are families that have fractured and dysfunctional relationships, and there is no interest in helping to care for each other, or contributing to the care that has been assumed by other siblings for their parent. Based on Eori, the lack of a relationship with an indigent parent has no bearing on the potential financial obligation to help a parent under the Pennsylvania’s filial support law. The only exception would be if the parent abandoned the child for a period of ten (10) years or more prior to the child reaching age 18 or, of course, in the case where the child that has potential liability to support a parent can establish that they themselves lack the financial ability to support the indigent parent based on standards set forth in the Pennsylvania Support Act.

The fact that the college obligation assumed by the son in Eori was to educate a stepchild made it easy for the two courts that heard the case to find that assuming an obligation for a non-blood relative does not override the obligation to care for an elderly parent at home with private caregivers. So, for all those families in Pennsylvania where stepchildren are being educated at the expense of a stepparent, the holding in Eori needs to be seriously considered when making such decisions to educate a stepchild after high school if the stepparent also has an indigent parent.

One puzzling fact in Eori, which was not apparent from either of the Court decisions, was why the family did not agree to place the mother in a nursing home setting when she required 24-hour supervised care as a result of dementia. A nursing facility would have been a legitimate option for care, and presuming she met the requirements, she would have been a candidate for Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program. Institutional care with the combination of Social Security payments and Medicaid payments would have avoided the need to bring legal proceedings against other family members to pay for 24-hour private care, which generally is more expensive and most families cannot afford. The Eori decision is troubling because it allows for a potentially unsound economic decision made by one family member to have a substantial negative economic impact on other family members under Pennsylvania filial support law. In addition, it sets the groundwork for taking the next step in finding that paying for the college education of a biological or adopted child, or even caring for a special needs child, is not a legitimate expense if, under the Pennsylvania Support Act, the potentially liable person still has other assets or income which can be applied to the support of an indigent parent.

The last known legislation proposed to repeal the Pennsylvania filial support law was presented by State Representative Anthony DeLuca (D-Penn Hills). House Bill 242 was referred to the House Judiciary Committee on January 28, 2015, but no action was taken on the Bill.

That portion of the Pennsylvania Support Act, known as the filial support law, is still the law in Pennsylvania despite the disharmony it can create within a family. Until the law is changed by the Pennsylvania Legislature, or the Pennsylvania Supreme Court takes action to ameliorate the broad reach of the decisions that are now on record concerning this law, it will continue to be used as a collection method, not only for nursing homes and health care providers, but also by those family members who are footing the bill for any type of home care or nursing home expenses and believe other siblings should be contributing to the cause as well.

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.