Pay for Mom and Dad's Nursing Home Care or Go to Jail! Really! (sort of)
Parents are obligated under the law to care for their children until they reach age 18. This makes sense to most of us, and few would question it. But most of us are blissfully unaware that the reverse can be true as well. Pursuant to Massachusetts General Laws chapter 273, section 20, any person over age 18:
“who, being possessed of sufficient means, unreasonably neglects…to provide for the support and maintenance of his parent…when such parent…is destitute…shall be punished by a fine of not more than two hundred dollars or by imprisonment for not more than one year, or both.”
These laws, known as “filial responsibility laws,” have been enacted in a number of states, and hold children responsible if they have the means of contributing to the cost of nursing home care or medical bills but fail to do so. In many states, that means the nursing home or medical provider may seek reimbursement from the patient’s adult children if the patient has no possibility of paying (in some cases because the parent transferred assets to their children). In Massachusetts, it also means that the child can theoretically be criminally charged and face jail time for failing to contribute!
The good news is that, at least for now, Massachusetts is not enforcing this law. Indeed, Massachusetts law permits an individual to transfer their assets in order to qualify for Medicaid nursing home assistance, so long as they satisfy a 5 year look back period. But as state budgets get ever tighter, it is unclear what the future holds. In Pennsylvania for instance, a child was held liable for $93,000 in unpaid nursing home bills after he helped his mother complete a Medicaid application and she then left the country, leaving behind the unpaid debt.
Given this legal landscape, it is more important than ever for aging parents to have a frank discussion about the future with their adult children, and to meet with a qualified estate planner if appropriate, to ensure that they can protect the assets they have worked a lifetime to accumulate while also protecting the ones they love.