Typically, the purpose of columns such as this is to report on rulings by courts. But there are times when law becomes established because courts do not rule on a particular issue. Such is the case with a ruling last week where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided not to give further consideration to a ruling by the Superior Court on an issue that has gained lots of attention in the past few years.
We all know that parents have a duty to support children but the law has long held that children may also be held responsible for the debts of their parents. The law has been rarely used until the last decade as hospitals and nursing homes simply wrote off what they could not collect in third party payments. But as Medicare has become more reluctant to pay, these health providers have become more aggressive in asserting their rights.
From September, 2007 to March, 2008 John Pittas’ mother was confined to a rehabilitation center by reason of a car accident. Upon discharge she left and moved to Greece. The health care facility brought an action against one of her sons. Curiously, they did not institute it against all of her children nor did they join Mr. Pittas’ father. Arbitrators ruled against the HCR Manor Care facility but the Common Pleas Court reversed the ruling and entered judgment against Mr. Pittas (the son) for just under $93,000. The son appealed to the Superior Court and in May, 2012 that Court affirmed the trial court judgment for $93,000. 2012 Pa. Super. 96.
Section 4603 of the Domestic Relations Code states that children may have legal responsibilities to provide for an indigent parent. The statute excuses such support if the child cannot afford to contribute or the parent had abandoned the child for more than ten years of the child’s minority. The person or institution seeking to impose the duty on the child has the burden to show that the person they have sued can contribute.
In this case HRC Manor Care demonstrated that the child had income of $85,000 a year or more. The Court decided it was not an abuse of discretion to decide that Mr. Pittas had the ability to support his Mother and noted that he did little to provide actual evidence of hardship. They also dismissed claims that his father and siblings were necessary parties. The Superior Court ruled that it was his duty to join anyone he felt had a duty to contribute. Lastly, they argued that indigency was not proven. Here the Court adopted the common law definition recited in Savoy v. Savoy, 641 A.2d 596 (Pa. Super. 1994) and noted that indigence did not equate to “without any resources.” Again the Superior Court noted that proof of a parent’s resources was something that the Defendant could have shown as part of his defense.
The Defendant asked the Supreme Court to review this case. In a one sentence order entered on March 27, the Court denied the request to hear the case. The effect is to affirm the ruling of the Superior Court. While the legislature has seen some movement on bills to limit child liability, the Commonwealth is not really in a financial position to take on a larger role in funding care for the indigent so a legislative solution is not likely. In the meantime, make certain that mom stays healthy if she is not already wealthy.