Deciding who should be stuck with seniors’ bills

Claude Paquin's picture

Hardly a week goes by that I do not receive in the mail an invitation to a presentation, sometimes accompanied by a promise of a free meal, where the subjects on which I am to be educated include finding ways of getting Mom free nursing home care while still inheriting her estate.

Sticking the government with the cost of having old parents taken care of while keeping their money may have a certain appeal for many people, though they may piously feign indignation at the size of our annual federal deficits and our growing national debt.

But I doubt that those attracted to these seminars come back with more than vague information, invitations to spend money for personal consultations, and above all offers of load mutual funds for which they pay dearly, if blindly, both initially, and every day thereafter they keep the fund.

So I was intrigued by a recent AARP Magazine article (November 2011, page 89) which presented a reader question worded this way: “A nursing home recently sued my friend for $10,000 to pay for her father’s end-of-life care. She had signed no papers and had no say in his choices or expenditures — is she responsible?”

My first reaction was that if she collected an inheritance from him she is indeed responsible for paying his debts first. But what I learned from the AARP answer, which didn’t include that part, was educational in itself.

Apparently, some 30 states have so-called filial responsibility laws, and the AARP website shows Georgia as one of them.

Sure enough, the Georgia code has code sections on that subject in Title 36 (Local Government), Chapter 12 (Supervision and Support of Paupers), shown to date back to 1863.

The first section, numbered 36-12-1, states that the general supervision of all paupers is vested in the county governing authority.

The second section, on eligibility for benefits, states that “No person who is able to maintain himself by labor or who has sufficient means shall be entitled to the benefits of the provision for the poor. In cases where women are unable to maintain themselves and the helpless children they may have, they may be aided to the extent required in the furnishing of food, clothing, or shelter.”

The filial responsibility part comes in at section 3 which provides that “The father, mother, or child of any pauper contemplated by Code Section 36-12-2, if sufficiently able, shall support the pauper. Any county having provided for such pauper upon the failure of such relatives to do so may bring an action against such relatives of full age and recover for the provisions so furnished.”

There’s an interesting section 4 which imposes personal liability upon anyone who sends a pauper to some Georgia county from somewhere else, by paying his transportation or otherwise, for the purpose of burdening some other community. (Give yourself one brownie point if the thought occurred to you that Fulton County and Grady Hospital might be a destination community here.)

The AARP article refers to some 42 million unpaid family caregivers in the United States as proof that adult children generally care for parents who cannot afford care for themselves. It is clear that without Social Security retirement benefits, as was the case in 1863, there would now be a great many old parents in need of filial support.

The final advice in the AARP response was to discuss your situation with an attorney immediately “if you find yourself at the wrong end of a suit.” They must mean a lawsuit rather than putting your pants on upside down in the dark.

I have to wonder how really helpful that last bit of advice was.

I think the late Andy Rooney would have said, “Well, it doesn’t hurt!” Except that it is obviously cheaper to get advice from magazines than from lawyers.

[Claude Y. Paquin, a Fayette County resident, is a retired actuary and lawyer with an interest in both elder law and Zumba.]