Dear Penny: Will We Get Stuck With Our Parents’ Outrageous Medical Bills?

A daughter holds the hand of her elderly parent.
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Dear Penny,

My parents are elderly and not in good health. They don’t take care of themselves or keep regular doctor’s appointments, especially my dad. This usually results in ambulances getting called and him spending several days in the hospital every few months. 

The amount of medical debt they have is staggering. At one point this past summer, both parents were hospitalized at the same time. We weren't entirely sure if my mother was going to make it. 

Ever since then, my brother has been anxiety-ridden with the idea that we will be saddled with their medical debt when they do pass. He sent me a website article about a case where a hospital sued the surviving family for an outrageous medical debt and won. Now he has all of us worried about it. 

We all work full time and live decent lives, but we wouldn’t be able to afford their medical debt, even if we split it between us. If it helps, we live in Pennsylvania. Can my brother and I be sued for our parents’ medical debt when they pass away?


Dear E.,

The odds of you or your brother being sued over your parents’ medical debt are extraordinarily slim. But here’s where I need to say upfront that I’m not an attorney. If the idea of being saddled with your parents’ medical debt is causing you and your siblings anxiety, consult with an elder care attorney. They can explain the nuances of the rare situations where an adult child could be liable for their parents’ medical bills.

If you and your siblings have researched this topic at length, you’ve probably discovered that filial responsibility laws are still on the books in more than half of states, Pennsylvania being one of them. Technically, these laws state that adult children can be required to pay for their parents’ care. But these laws are almost never enforced. Most predate Medicare and Medicaid, which were created in 1965.

Dear Penny

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Today, the vast majority of older people have their health care covered by Medicare. But Medicare generally doesn’t cover long-term nursing care costs. In that case, the person who needs care is often required to pay out of pocket until they qualify for Medicaid based on their assets and income. That often doesn’t take long, given the exorbitant costs of nursing care.

Still, if you start Googling questions like “Are children responsible for their parents’ medical bills?,” there’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon a 2012 case in which a nursing home successfully sued a Pennsylvania man for his mother’s $93,000 nursing home bill. Receiving such a bill would be a nightmare for a typical family. But that case was unusual for a few reasons.

The man’s mother entered a rehabilitation center after a car crash and applied for Medicaid. But she moved to Greece while her Medicaid application was still pending. So the nursing home used Pennsylvania’s filial responsibility law to sue her son for the outstanding bill.

For most people who need to enter a nursing home, this wouldn’t become an issue because Medicaid would kick in. But if either of your parents needs long-term care at some point, an attorney can help you and your parent fill out the application properly to avoid delays in coverage. Should one parent require nursing care, an attorney may be able to help them qualify for Medicaid while helping the other parent to keep some assets. One common way of doing this is through a Medicaid-compliant annuity.

You and your siblings should avoid signing your name to anything related to your parents’ debt. Also beware of holding any assets jointly with your parents. If you own property together, it’s possible for creditors to go after the joint asset for your parents’ outstanding debts.

If your parents haven’t made an estate plan, urge them not to delay any further. It’s especially important that they both spell out their wishes in case they become incapacitated. A solid estate plan will spell out who should make financial and medical decisions in the event that someone can’t communicate, often using power of attorney documents.

There’s only so much you can do if your parents refuse to take care of their health. If there’s anything you can do to encourage them — say, by offering to schedule and drive them to doctor’s appointments or helping out with copays if you can afford to — by all means, offer. But whatever happens, you and your siblings can take comfort in knowing that you won’t be responsible for their debt.

Trying to climb out of debt? Here are 50 ways to bring in extra money this month.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].