China’s been in the news lately as it tries to enforce a recently enacted filial law requiring adult children to pay regular visits to their elderly parents. But closer to home, we’ve had our own filial laws in the news including a story that came out this week in which a Montana man’s mom received care from a nursing home. When his mother, Dena Mae Jarrell entered the home, Jerry Jarrell acting under power of attorney, signed the admissions forms on his mother’s behalf. When his mother died, the nursing home sued Jerry Jarrell alleging that as his mother’s attorney in fact, he was liable for the debt under Montana’s filial support statute.
Financial obligations under family law are largely the responsibility of the states rather than the federal government. Filial support laws are state laws imposing a duty upon adult children for the support of their impoverished parents. Twenty-nine states have filial support laws (see a list of the states in the paper linked below) that make adult children with the means to pay for care responsible for necessities like food, clothing, housing and medical attention for their parents. The laws are modeled after Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601 that made blood relatives the primary source of support for family members including the elderly. Those laws had been enforced until the New Deal and the advent of Social Security and then later Medicaid. So that in all but two of those 29 states according to this paper, filial law was rarely addressed in the courts. And that’s how things stood until Medicaid started having financial problems and some states began to reassess filial law to help cut their own costs.
What that has meant is that nursing homes that have cared for elderly individuals that they then have no ability to recover money from have in turn begun turning to the children of those individuals using those laws. In 2012, a Pennsylvania appeals court found a son liable for his mother’s nearly $100,000 nursing home bill when his mother received care and then left the states for Greece, leaving her bill unpaid. Rather than seeking payment from Medicaid, the nursing home went to the son for payment. The result was that nursing homes in other states began to look to this case as precedent.
So now we get back to Jerry Jarrell. The nursing home sued him saying that he had a duty to pay his mother’s debts. Jarrell filed a motion claiming he was acting only on behalf of his mother and was not personally liable for his mother’s debt according to an article in Elder Law Answers. You can read the case here. He also argued that Montana’s filial support statutes did not permit nursing homes to force relatives to guarantee payment as a condition of admission. Montana’s Eleventh Judicial Court granted Jarrell’s motion for summary judgment finding that Montana’s specific prohibitions against soliciting third parties for payment trumped the more general language of the filial support law.