By Monica Yant Kinney
This one's going to blow baby boomers' minds. It concerns a little-known law dating to Elizabethan England suddenly being enforced with gusto in Pennsylvania. The law can force adult children to pay their parents' health-care costs.
If Mom and Pop can't pay, you pay. If they have the money but refuse to pay, you pay. If you don't, watch your credit rating sink under the weight of a legal judgment that will haunt you for life.
It happened to Don Grant. It can happen to you.
The Havertown man is nearly 50 and struggling to pay his mortgage and $100,000 in student loans incurred by his daughter, a recent Albright College grad.
Last year, Grant was sued because his mother, Diana Fichera, did not pay an $8,000 bill at a Delaware County nursing home, where she rehabilitated after surgery.
Grant went to court with his half-sister, who was also sued. He told the nursing-home attorney that he's estranged from his mother and that Fichera has income from Social Security plus two pensions.
The nursing-home lawyer told Grant that all would be resolved if Fichera paid up. When she again refused, the judgment was entered against the whole family.
Family strife costly
Grant says that his relationship with his mother "has always been strained" and that he was raised primarily by his grandparents.
"It was a big house in Drexel Hill," he recalls. "She lived on the second floor. We lived on the first. Sometimes, she'd show for dinner, sometimes not. She never did homework with us."
Grant says his mother has long overspent and mismanaged her money. Fichera declined to comment through her daughter, Grant's half-sister, who asked not to be named.
Public records show pages of judgments and liens against Fichera, 71, who receives a $1,434 monthly pension after working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for 23 years. (Unlike wages, which can be garnisheed, Social Security and pensions are generally exempt from seizure.)
In 2006, the Wallingford Nursing & Rehab Center sued Fichera for not paying a $28,000 bill.
Two years later, she accrued another debt at Brinton Manor in Glen Mills. This time, the nursing-home lawyer got creative.
Old law, new use
Blue Bell lawyer Brian Scott Dietrich represents Brinton Manor, but did not return phone calls for comment. Pennsylvania State University law professor Katherine Pearson knew why as soon as I mentioned his name.
"There are three or four major lawyers in Pennsylvania who specialize in representing nursing homes and hospitals, and one of their favorite tools is Pennsylvania's filial statute. Dietrich is one of them," says Pearson, an expert on the arcane issue, also known as "support of indigents."
"These attorneys will bring suit against adult children even if the children live out of state and even if it's been years since they had contact with their parent."
The legal concept of requiring children to support their parents predates colonial America.
"It's a noble theory, a law to make families responsible for each other," Pearson notes. "It didn't work then, and it doesn't work now."
In fact, she adds, filial cases usually "end any real possibility of the family reuniting."
Pay now or pay later
Grant learned of Fichera's rehab debt in a letter from Dietrich's office in March 2008.
"I said, 'Don't contact me. I have nothing to do with her. You're barking up the wrong tree.' "
A month later, Grant was laid off. In August, he was sued.
By the time of the court hearing, Grant had found work for less pay at a firm that sells foreclosures. "I talked to a lawyer," he says, "but he wanted $400, and I didn't have it."
Representing himself was an expensive mistake. Grant never knew he had a narrow window to appeal. Now, it's too late.
"Most of the time, the nursing homes will still compromise and settle, but not always," Pearson says. "Once they have a judgment, they feel empowered."
So a hurt and angry son is left with a dilemma he can't afford: Go into debt to pay his mother's debt, or ignore it and brace for the worst.
"If I go to buy a car, it's going to affect my credit," he says. "If we try to sell the house, it will come up."
Needless to say, Grant no longer speaks to his mother.
"The worst part? She's got as much money coming in as we do," he says. "And I'm being held responsible for her irresponsibility."