Filial Responsibility Laws Make Adult Children Liable for Parents' Debt

By Neetal Parekh on July 27, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Attorneys are using an obscure law to enforce unpaid healthcare bills by seniors.  In Pennsylvania, attorneys have dusted off old law books to make use of a law that holds adult children financially responsible for their parents' health care debt.  An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on an adult son who was afflicted by this legal bow and arrow when he was sued for his mother's $8000 bill at a nursing home.

Pennsylvania is not the only state with filial responsibility laws, requiring adult children to care for their parents.  Thirty states feature such laws that allow a variety of healthcare institutions, public agencies, creditors and even the parents themselves to bring a claim. 

The concept of supporting one's parents predates colonial America and is prevalent in various cultures.  And while it makes good sense to have children support parents who have spent countless hours and resources rearing children at a time when the parents may not be able to support and care for themselves---our complicated world of complicated relationships give rise to counter-intuitive scenarios of liability.

In some states with filial responsibility laws, the courts turn a blind eye to whether the parent abandoned the child during formative years or was abusive.  And in other states, the offense of not ponying up could land the adult child in jail for a year, branded with a criminal charge.  And though the laws can lead to a relationship of financial responsibility, then can often devastate the potential for reconciliation.

It may be time for states to reevaluate existing filial responsibility laws to ensure that they work toward family cohesion rather than against it and mirror the complexities of the ever-changing American family tree.


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