Do children have to pay for parents in nursing homes?

About 30 states have laws on the books that say adult children are responsible for the financial support of indigent parents. In some states this includes nursing home costs. These laws are so rarely enforced that many people believe adult children have no legal obligation to pay for their parents’ care, but that is technically untrue in the majority of states.

There have been recent changes in federal law that might affect how those state laws are enforced. In 2006, President Bush signed into law a bill that will cut billions from health care for seniors. This new law includes a penalty that is much more severe than before for people who give away or transfer their assets to qualify for federal benefits. Under the old law, the penalty period—the period during which the senior will not be eligible for federal nursing home benefits—began to run when the assets were transferred. Now, the penalty period doesn’t begin to run until the senior has run out of assets and is in need of a nursing home. This means that substantial numbers of seniors who, intentionally or unintentionally, transferred assets in a way the government finds was inappropriate, will be left with no assets, no benefits, and in immediate need of nursing home care.

If nursing homes are forced to bear the cost for indigent patients, they may seek to enforce laws requiring adult children to pay. Consult an elder law attorney in your state if you think you might be liable for these costs.