Woman playing with son after learning how filial responsibility laws can affect her.

4 minute read

How Filial Responsibility Laws Can Affect You

Are aware of filial responsibility law? Learn more about filial responsibility and five ways it may affect you in this guide from Trust & Will.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

In some cultures, adult children are expected to care for their aging parents — a filial duty. Japan, China, Korea, and Vietnam are all examples of cultures ingrained with caring for the elderly. It isn’t uncommon for multiple generations to live under one roof, with adult children providing care and financial support for both their immediate family and their aging parents. 

In contrast, filial duty is not as ingrained in American culture. To the contrary, there is much financial pressure to save up enough money for retirement so as to be as financially independent as possible. However, adults with aging parents should not make the mistake of thinking they’re completely off the hook. There’s something called a filial responsibility law that may hold you personally liable for your parents’ long-term care if they cannot pay for it themselves. Keep reading to understand what filial responsibility law is and how it can impact you so that you can make steps to protect yourself and your family. 

What is Filial Responsibility?

Filial responsibility is a legal term that describes an adult child’s obligation or duty to his or her parent(s). 

Parents have a duty to provide care and support to their child(ren) because they are unable to provide for themselves. This includes emotional support, as well as financial support to ensure that the child’s basic needs are met, and hopefully exceeded. 

Once these parents age, then it is the child’s duty to care for their parents in return. At least, more than half of U.S. states believe this to be true. States that apply filial responsibility laws hold adult children financially liable for their parents when several conditions are met. While the details vary from state to state, it is usually called into question when the parent is indigent (in need) and is otherwise unable to support themselves. If an adult child is reasonably able to support the parent(s) after caring for their immediate family, then they are believed to have filial responsibility. A nursing home, for instance, can sue the adult child for repayment of their parent’s unpaid facility costs. 

5 Ways Filial Responsibility Can Affect You

While individuals in cultures with a strong sense of filial duty typically spend their adult lives expecting and preparing to support their aging parents, it is not the same in the U.S. 

That’s why it can be an absolute shock when you are suddenly informed of your filial responsibility by law. Keep reading to find out more about how filial responsibility can affect you if you live in a state with this law. 

1. Your parents health care will be uncertain 

First and foremost, leaving health care bills unpaid could lead to a termination of your parents’ health care. Keep in mind that nursing care facilities can and will evict a patient for failure to pay their bills, so long as they do so in line with any applicable laws. This means that if you’re responsible for paying for your parents’ health care (based on filial responsibility) but do not, then your parent’s future health care will be uncertain. 

2. You may face civil or criminal penalties

While filial responsibility laws vary from state to state, almost all provide for civil and/or criminal penalties. For example, a Vermont resident who is found guilty for neglecting their filial responsibility to support a parent in need could face a fine of $300 and/or up to two years of imprisonment. 

3. You may be sued for your parents’ long-term care bills

In addition to civil and/or criminal penalties that can come with filial responsibility violations, health care providers can sue you for your parents’ unpaid bills. While a provider likely won’t come after you for a $65 copay for a doctor’s visit, they are certainly more likely to take legal action for expensive debts. The most famous example of filial responsibility took place in Pennsylvania, in the case Health Care Retirement Corporation of America vs. Pittas in 2012. In this case, the defendant was found guilty and was charged with the repayment of an unpaid nursing home bill totaling $92,943.41

4. Your financial transactions may be investigated

If your filial responsibility were to come into question, be prepared for your recent financial transactions to be subject to investigation. The court may be looking for property and asset transfers that appear suspicious or fraudulent, in an attempt to throw off creditors. 

A court won’t casually hold an individual liable for the parent’s medical debt. They will only do so under very specific conditions, mentioned earlier. They must prove that the parent is unable to pay the medical debt on their own by working or other means, and they also must prove that you (the child) can reasonably afford to help pay this debt. If you have ample income but reasonably need that income to support yourself and your immediate family, then the court likely will not hold you liable. 

However, a court can hold you liable if you have sufficient funds to support your parents, even after supporting yourself and immediate family. This may create a strong enough temptation for some individuals to alter the optics of their finances by transferring property. Not only is this illegal, you could also risk rendering your parents ineligible for Medicaid. 

5. You may have to engage in difficult legal action to recover funds

Imagine if you had to sue your brother or sister to get them to help you pay for your parent’s medical debt. Awkward. In many states, a healthcare provider is legally able to come after you alone to recover a parent’s unpaid medical debt, even if you have siblings. If you are sued and found liable for the debt, then you would have to make the difficult decision of whether or not you wish to sue your siblings or other relatives who are potentially liable to help share the debt.

Understand How Filial Responsibility Works in Your State

Filial responsibility is a social and cultural concept that describes an adult child’s duty to support his or her aging parents. While this sense of duty is strongly ingrained in some cultures, it is not as strong in the U.S. 

If you ask any American, you’ll likely get a consensus that they plan to take care of themselves in their old age, along with available government support. Not many will expect their children to support them, at least not outright. Therefore, there’s a lot more pressure to save up for retirement and long-term care costs so that we don’t pass on that pressure of care onto our children.

However, assuming that you don’t have any filial responsibility would be a mistake. Even if your parents haven’t ever asked or expect you to take care of them in their old age, the law may. Over half of U.S. states have filial responsibility law which can find you (the adult child) personally liable for your parents’ medical debt. That’s why you should take care to find out whether or not you live in a state where you could be sued for your parents’ debt. Further, it’s a great opportunity to have a candid conversation with your parents to ensure that they are aware of this law, and how they plan to pay for their long-term care costs. It is much better to take a proactive approach than be sued to foot the bill against your will.

Last but not least, creating an Estate Plan is an important component of setting up you and your family for long-term success. For instance, setting up and funding an Irrevocable Trust can help you protect your assets from creditors. You may also feel inspired to check in with your parents to ensure that they have an Estate Plan in place, along with a long-term growth strategy such that issues like filial responsibility won’t ever have to come into question. Find out how you can set up an online Trust with Trust & Will today.

Is there a question here we didn’t answer? Reach out to us today or Chat with a live member support representative!

Trust & Will is an online service providing legal forms and information. We are not a law firm and we do not provide legal advice.