Many of our clients are involved in the admission of a spouse, parent or grandparent to a nursing home. It is a traumatic experience. The emotions of sorrow, guilt, and even resentment against self or others for not being able to keep the loved one at home create great stress. But it can get worse.
Imagine the shock of receiving a demand letter for payment of the loved one’s nursing home bill. This can happen when the cost of care is not fully covered by Medicaid or nursing home insurance or the resident’s own income. A recent article by the Kaiser Health Network entitled Nursing Homes Are Suing the Friends and Family of Residents to Collect Debts points out that such demands have been made, and lawsuits have been filed, on family and friends who have no legal or financial connection with the resident.
“I get calls all the time from people who are served with these lawsuits who had no idea that this was even a remote possibility, who call me crying and frantic,” said Anna Anderson, an attorney at the nonprofit Legal Assistance of Western New York who has represented defendants in such suits, including Brooks. “They believe not only that they’re going to lose their own income and their own houses and assets, but also they’re concerned that their loved ones who are still in the nursing home may be potentially kicked out.”
Federal laws and regulations prohibit homes from requiring a resident’s relatives or friends to financially guarantee the resident’s bills. Facilities cannot even request such guarantees. The Nursing Home Reform Act of 1987 prohibits a health care facility that accepts Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement from requiring a third party to be financially responsible for the cost of care for the resident, unless the facility has a conversation with the third party advising them of this protection and they voluntarily accept the responsibility anyway.
But consumer advocates say nursing homes slip the admissions agreements into papers that family members sign when an older parent or sick friend is admitted. Sometimes people are told they must sign, a violation of federal law. Sometimes there is barely any discussion. “They are given a stack of forms and told, ‘Sign here, sign there. Click here, click there,’” said Miriam Sheline, managing attorney at Pro Seniors, a nonprofit law firm in Cincinnati.
As we have advised many clients, no one in Mississippi – including a spouse – is legally responsible for the debts and liabilities of another person UNLESS the individual signs contracts or otherwise volunteers to become responsible for those obligations. A spouse, child or other person admitting an incapacitated person should NOT sign their individual name to an admission agreement or other contract on behalf of the incapacitated person unless the signer is willing to be legally liable for those debts. Doing so may result in a surprising and unwanted demand for payment in the future.