My wife and I have been in the USA for approx. 4.5 years. We...

Ajamesgardner asked...

My wife and I have been in the USA for approx. 4.5 years. We are here on an Non-immigrant E2-Treaty Investor visa. Last year my 83 year old mother-in law visited the US from Brazil for a vacation. While here she became ill and was taken to an emergency ward. She had a number of tests and was released the following day. A week later she returned to Brazil. My wife collected her from the hospital and had to sign a paper listing our home as her mother's residence. Later, we started to receive medical bills addressed to my mother-in-law. My wife and I have no medical insurance. Are we or other members of my wife's family (she has two sisters - one is a green card holder, the other is a US citizen) liable for my mother-in-laws medical expenses?

Expert Answer

In general, no adult child is responsible for the debts of a parent except under one of several circumstances:

  1. If you agree to be responsible. In your case, this could have occurred if either you or your wife signed a paper at the hospital agreeing to be financially responsible for your mother-in-law's hospital bills. However, signing something that just gave your address as your mother-in-law's residence is not, by itself, an agreement to be responsible for her bills. But read that document carefully to see if there is any other language in it that seems to say that your wife was agreeing to pay the bills for her mother.

  2. Your assets are mingled. If an adult child and a parent have a joint bank account or other joint assets, a creditor (like the hospital) could seek to have a debt repaid from those jointly held funds. This doesn't seem to be the case with you and your mother-in-law.

  3. Legal responsibility as a condition of entry to the U.S. When a non-citizen enters the U.S., the federal government sometimes requires that a family member or other sponsor agree to be financially responsible for the person entering the country. This is more often the case when someone is applying for a visa to live in the U.S. rather than just for a tourist visa, which it sounds like your mother-in-law had. Still, you might check with your wife and her sisters to see if any of them signed such an agreement in order for your mother-in-law to visit the U.S. Even if one of them did sign such a pledge, however, it usually applies only to government assistance -- welfare, Medicaid, SSI and the like -- but not to private debts.

Unless one of the above circumstances applies to your family, you should not be held responsible for your mother-in-law's debts. If the hospital or a collection agency contacts you about your mother-in-law's bills, inform them that she does not live with you, provide them with her address in Brazil, and politely ask them to deal with her directly.