You can be held financially responsible for your elderly parents under some circumstances. Filial responsibility laws, though rarely enforced by the states that have them, may require you to support your elderly parents. You could also be held financially accountable if you’ve agreed to cover your parents’ care expenses, you’ve received property from them or you’re sued by a caregiver or nursing home.

Note: This article covers your financial responsibilities as determined by state and local governing bodies, not whether you may feel morally responsibile to care for your elderly parents. The latter is obviously a much more complicated and personal subject, and outside of the scope of this article.

What Are Filial Responsibility Laws?

Filial responsibility laws put an obligation on adults with elderly parents to provide whatever financial support they can to make sure their loved ones have the housing, nutrition and care they need to thrive. Around half of U.S. states have these laws, and the penalties for violators range from civil fines to criminal penalties. These laws are rarely enforced, especially when the presumed responsible person lacks the resources to support their parents, but from time to time, a case is successfully prosecuted for failure of duty. States and territories that have filial responsibility laws in 2023 are:

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Mississippi
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • North Carolina
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Puerto Rico
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • West Virginia

Civil Responsibility for Seniors

All states allow the enforcement of private contracts. If an adult has agreed to be the financially responsible party for a senior relative, such as when they’re admitted to a nursing home with the senior’s child as the point of contact for payment and other matters, they can be sued for breach of contract if the monthly bills aren’t paid. As with criminal enforcement, this is rare and usually occurs when the defendant specifically committed in a written contract to pay for the treatment, had the means to pay and failed to do so. These cases are similar to any other contract law, so they’re not strictly in the realm of filial responsibility. 

Public Benefits and Seniors’ Estates

Many indigent seniors qualify for some form of public assistance, and this is also a venue by which their adult children can be held indirectly responsible for the cost of care. Medicaid, for example, reserves the right to deny coverage for seniors who apply to the program after transferring their assets to offspring. Most states’ Medicaid programs audit applicants’ finances over a 5-year look-back period to see if there have been any substantial transfers of cash, real property, stocks or other assets. If this is found, coverage can be denied as if the senior still possessed these assets.

Medicaid can also recover some of its costs from the estates of beneficiaries who have passed away. This is usually done by attaching the property and money that would otherwise be inherited, thus effectively making adult children financially responsible by reducing the value of their inheritance. This is much more common than lawsuits or prosecutions. It’s best to always consult with an experienced senior law attorney before making financial decisions regarding senior care.