It's legally well established that parents have a responsibility to financially support their children. In approximately half of all states, however, the reverse is true as well - adult children have a legal responsibility to support their parents when their parents don't have sufficient income to take care of themselves. In legal terms, this is "filial responsibility."
Who Do You Have to Pay?
Filial responsibility laws typically don't apply unless your parent has to accept financial support from the government or she incurs a nursing home or other medical bill that she has no possibility of paying. If she has no financial resources, you might be expected to pay for her care. The nursing home, hospital, government or a third party can file a lawsuit against you in states that allow it, seeking a judgment that would obligate you to pay your parent's bill.
Your Parents Must Be Indigent
Most state laws specify that your parent must be indigent before the court will rule in favor of a filial responsibility lawsuit. If the costs of your parent's care exceed her monthly Social Security benefits, the state would probably consider her indigent. Massachusetts clarifies the issue as someone who is "destitute and too infirm" to care for herself.
Penalties Can Be Severe
If the court awards a nursing home, hospital or the state a filial responsibility judgment against you, you might risk going to jail if you don't pay it. Approximately half the states with filial responsibility laws impose criminal penalties if you fail to provide financially for your parent's care. Other states will use the judgment to garnish your wages or place liens against your property. The judgment will appear as an unpaid debt on your credit report.
Not Every Adult Child Must Pay
The law gives courts some discretion when enforcing filial responsibility laws. If you're barely making ends meet financially, courts typically won't require you to impoverish yourself to pay for your parent's care. Likewise, if you're paying significant costs for your own child, such as college tuition, this may exempt you from being responsible for your parent as well. A "clean hands" doctrine also applies. If your parent abused you or abandoned you as a child, the law allows that she's undeserving of your financial support. However, some states have statutory requirements for abandonment. In Pennsylvania, your parent must have abandoned you for at least 10 years before you reached age 18.
What Can You Do?
Before you find yourself in court defending yourself against such a claim, speak with an elder care attorney in your state to find out how vulnerable you are to this law. You may live in a jurisdiction that doesn't recognize filial responsibility. If you do, a lawyer can help you make sure your parent is provided for in the event she needs costly, long-term care, such as by helping her qualify for Medicaid.
An Elder Law Attorney Can Help
The law surrounding filial responsibility is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an elder law attorney.