Saturday, January 5, 2013

Will you pay Mom and Dad's bills?

I am surprised at how often we receive calls from adults asking "do I have to support my aging parents?" For those asking the question, the answer does not reside in their faith or personal moral code. The kids want a purely legal answer.  The kids want to know if the State of Maryland can force them to foot the cost of maintaining their indigent parents.
As of March 2012, twenty-nine States still have laws to compel children to pay for the care and feeding of indigent parents. Maryland is one of those states.
Maryland law gives the indigent parent, or someone acting on their behalf, the power to petition the State's Attorney to institute a court case against a grown child. With a rapidly aging population of under-insured and uninsured seniors, I expect to see the statute invoked, more frequently.
A recent study published by Katherine Pearson, a professor of law at the Dickinson School of Law at Penn State University, found that long-term care providers are taking advantage of such laws in at least two states: North Dakota and Pennsylvania.
The case in Pennsylvania involved expenses incurred by Maryann Pittas, the victim of a car accident. Ms. Pittas was a patient in nursing home for about six months before relocating to Greece to live with relatives. Her son was sued by the nursing home for nearly $93,000. In May 2012, the trial court found in favor of the nursing home, based on the son's ability to pay.
According to Prof. Pearson's study:
"[b]y holding the son liable for a lump sum of close to $93,000 in the Pittas case, the superior court appears to confirm a significant tool for certain creditors of individuals who are unable to pay their debts personally, permitting the filial support statute to be applied retroactively to substantial accrued debt, without requiring evidence of fault on the part of the targeted family member,"
I do not believe the Maryland statute should be used in the same manner, although lean economic times may well drive aggressive creditors, long term care insurers and court appointed guardians to test the limits of the statute.
On the same subject of caring for elderly parents, China just amended a 1996 elder care law to require children to "visit regularly."  The  amendment has been under consideration for over a year, according to blogs that follow developments in the far east:
"[a]dult children of elderly parents will be required to visit their parents regularly and must care for their spiritual needs and cannot neglect or isolate them...
 In traditional Chinese thinking, children who have come of age have the duty to support and assist their parents. However, among the total number of 167 million elderly people, half of them are living alone without children, and some of them cannot even get good care, said the report.
A Chinese lawyer told state media in 2011 that the proposed new law would be difficult to enforce. In his words, "[i]t would be better to strengthen moral education than to force people to do something legally."  Rather an American statement, I think.

Dubbed the "Going Home Often" law, the Chinese statute seeks to shift care for the elderly away from the government, and back to the immediate family. Here, in the United States, the shift has been steadily away from family, and to the government. The Maryland statute is actually a vestige of statutes predating the creation of medicare, medicaid, and social security. But there are no signs that the statute will be amended or repealed, anytime soon.

So, will your folks sue you for support?  Will the nursing home? Or, perhaps their long term care insurer?  It's coming.

But would it kill you to call your parents, once in awhile?

Sitting, bottom left, is Clara van Dijk-Valkenet, 1880-1962, with her family.