Pennsylvania’s Filial Support Law: A Child’s Obligation To Support A Parent

Jul 26, 2016

By: Thomas E. Shea, Esquire

A few months ago, we published an article on the cost of long-term care (http://sterneisenberg.com/elder-law/2554/). If you have an aging parent, you may have assumed that they planned for the cost of long-term care. Ignorance is bliss, but that ignorance could come at a surprising cost, at least in Pennsylvania, because of its “filial support” law.

Under Pennsylvania’s filial support law, adult children have a legal obligation to support their parents if their parents are “indigent.” If you think “indigent” means destitute, think again. Pennsylvania courts have declared that a person is “indigent” simply if they do not have sufficient means to pay for their own care and maintenance. While indigent persons typically have little in the way of assets to pay for care, an aging parent may still have several thousand dollars of monthly income (i.e. social security and perhaps a monthly pension). If their health care and long-term care costs exceed their income, they could be considered indigent for purposes of Pennsylvania’s filial support law.

While Pennsylvania’s filial support law has not been the subject of much litigation (at least until recently), Pennsylvania courts that have dealt with filial support disputes have seen the following claims:

  1. Claims by nursing homes against an adult child to recover the cost of care for an elderly parent. These claims can involve situations where there has been a failure or delay in applying for public assistance for long-term care, or where there has been an attempt to transfer assets from a parent to child that disqualifies the parent for public assistance for long-term care, or where an elderly parent was removed from or otherwise left a nursing home leaving behind unpaid bills.
  2. Claims by a child serving as the primary caretaker for a parent against one or more siblings, who may have little or no role in providing such care, for financial support for that parent. If the cost of providing that care exceeds the parent’s financial resources, that child can use the filial support laws to hold their siblings responsible for a part of those costs.

With the aging of America and the increasing cost of long-term care, it is reasonable to think that there will be increasing pressure in coming years to increase medical assistance funding for our elderly. Filial support laws (over half of the states have such laws), and related laws like medical assistance estate recovery laws that allow states to make claims against a decedent’s estate for the public cost of that decedent’s care, exist as a way to address shortfalls and gaps in this public funding. Interestingly, legislation was introduced in 2015 in Pennsylvania to repeal this filial support law. However, this proposed legislation has seen little movement and it has been reported that attempts to repeal this filial support law have been blocked by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and nursing home lobbies.

If you have aging parents where health care and long-term care needs are a concern, be aware of this support obligation, encourage discussion with your family and plan in advance for the possible cost of long-term care, including the ability to qualify for medical assistance (Medicaid), Veterans, and other public or private benefits if and as needed. Open and early communication and planning on this topic now, before disaster strikes, can avoid lawsuits and fractured families later.

For more information on our estate and long-care planning services for Pennsylvania residents, please contact our office at 215-572-8111.

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