Am I responsible for my father's nursing home bills?

1 answer | Last updated: Nov 28, 2016
A fellow caregiver asked...

Am I responsible for my father's nursing home bills? I held my father's power of attorney. In 2004, he lived in a nursing home. In July of that year, he left the home for a different living arrangement. He died in January, 2005. For almost three years, I heard nothing from the home. Then, they "captured" our state tax refund. They claim I owe them a large sum of money. If so, why did they not contact me? If there is a bill, am I responsible for it? Do they have the legal right to take our tax refund checks? As his power of attorney, am I stuck with his nursing home bills? Does a person's debt die with them?

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

The IRS has been known at times to work in strange and confusing ways -- and this seems to be one of them.

A person's debt does not die with them. What usually happens is that all creditors are notified when a person dies -- and the outstanding debts are ranked in a hierarchy set out in state law and paid off from remaining estate property. If there is not enough property to satisfy the creditors at the tail end of the list, for example, they are simply out of luck and out of pocket.

The fact that you were authorized to act for your father in his power of attorney does not make you personally responsible for his debts. About the only way you would be responsible is if you signed on as your father's personal guarantor when your father entered the nursing home, so you would be wise to get a copy of the nursing home contract and check out whether you expressly took on this obligation.

If the nursing home appears to be hectoring you needlessly, there are a number of routes you can take to attempt to resolve the situation.

  • Contact the facility administrator. It is best to try to resolve minor complaints within the nursing facility first. The facility should have written policies readily available that explain how to file a complaint or grievance. Put complaints in writing to the facility administrator and ask for a written response—giving him or her a fair chance to address your concerns.
  • Contact an ombudsman. Every nursing facility is assigned an ombudsman—a person outside the facility and not associated with the company who is responsible for investigating complaints, reporting allegations of elder abuse, and helping residents solve problems through mediation.
  • Contact an advocacy organization. A number of local organizations can offer you a seasoned and impartial assessment of whether your particular complaint needs action, along with specific help on how to get it. Consult the National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform for local contacts.
  • Contact the state regulatory agency. If communicating with the nursing facility and the local Ombudsman Office does not resolve the problem, consider filing a complaint with state authorities at the Department of Health Services Licensing and Certification program.