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Money June 2018

Dollar Sense

Could You be Required to Pay Nursing Home Costs of Family Members?

By Teresa Ambord

No federal law requires you to pay for the care your elderly relatives need. But before you breathe easily, some states do have such requirements. They’re called “filial responsibility statutes,” or “relatives’ liability” and they vary by state.

The answer may be yes, depending on where you live and the circumstances. Most of us feel some degree of obligation to take care of our parents when they can no longer care for themselves. But if your parents (or other adult relatives) haven’t taken the steps to plan for the worst possibilities — such as the cost of living in a nursing home — the costs could be enormous. That can be frightening and frustrating if your parents have neglected or refused to prepare with long-term care insurance or adequate savings or other arrangements to cover the costs.

Even with insurance, no policy covers everything. Sometimes the government will step in to fill the needs gap. But not always. No federal law requires you to pay for the care your elderly relatives need. But before you breathe easily, some states do have such requirements. They’re called “filial responsibility statutes,” or “relatives’ liability” and they vary by state. Currently about 30 states have filial statutes. These statutes have been around for years, and the truth is, they are rarely enforced. However, that may be changing.

Aging Population

As the percentage of our population that is elderly or otherwise dependent grows, we should all be prepared for the possibility that we have to step up to the plate or be held accountable.

Filial statutes allow civil suits, so that nursing homes and government agencies can bring legal action to recover the cost of care from family members. Before you get too comfortable, it’s a good idea to find out what your state requires. Some even allow jail time if family members fail to provide filial support.

One well-known case that went to court in Pennsylvania ended with a man being ordered to pay $93,000 to cover the cost of his mother’s outstanding debt to a nursing home (Health Care & Retirement Corp. of America v. Pittas).

Be aware, this is not just for people with aging parents in nursing homes. It can also be parents of an adult child who requires health care services. In one case, a couple was pressured to pay the medical bills for their 47-year-old son who passed away. In yet another case, it was determined in court that siblings each had financial responsibility to share the support of their mother who required in-home care.

What Does a Filial Statute Require?

Again, it varies by state, but in general they look at factors such as the assets and income of the person in question. I’m not in the legal profession, but I always caution people — out of common sense — about putting their names on any account or document that involves or could involve financial responsibility. But filial statutes in general require family members to pay for necessities such as food, clothing, housing, and medical care. And if you’re the family member of someone who has racked up high medical costs, such as the 47-year-old man who died, you may be asked to prove that you don’t have assets to pay medical costs. If you truly don’t have the means, you may not be forced to pay, but don’t assume the authorities won’t dig deeply to make sure you really can’t pay.

Some states have alternate approaches to enforce filial statues, if they enforce them at all. If this is a concern for you, find out if your state allows you to declare you are not responsible for the medical costs of your adult family members. You may also be able to forfeit your inheritance rights to pay for the care received.


Criteria that Must be Met for Filial Responsibility Laws to Kick In

According to

  • Your family member must be receiving some state government financial aid.
  • He or she must have medical or nursing home bills without the ability to pay the bills, in a state which has filial responsibility laws.
  • Family members must be considered indigent, which means that the cost of their care must exceed their Social Security benefits.
  • He or she does not qualify for Medicaid.
  • There must be reason to believe that you as the family member have the money to pay the bill and a lawsuit must be filed against you.

If you don’t know the laws in your state or have questions, it would be smart to discuss this with your attorney. It’s not an area of law that is widely known, so if your family situation has you wondering… don’t wait. Ask.


SIDEBAR: Which States Currently Have Filial Responsibility Law?
















New Hampshire

New Jersey

North Carolina

North Dakota




Rhode Island

South Dakota





West Virginia

Also, Puerto Rico


Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

Meet Teresa