Surprise Lawsuit? Get help!

Financial stress is high these days, thanks to inflation. Imagine adding to that a notice of a lawsuit seeking you to pay a bill of $10,000 or more that is owed by your relative to a nursing home! That would be enough to tip stress levels over the edge!

Unfortunately that scenario has been increasingly common for siblings, nieces or nephews, children or grandchildren or other relatives and friends of individuals living in long term care facilities, according to a recent article in Kaiser Health News, a reputable source of information on health policy issues.

If this should happen to you, don’t panic! There are steps you can take, and help is available. Seek information. Ask for documentation of the debt, AND ask for documentation of why the facility sees you as liable for the debt. And get help – you do not need to deal with this kind of nightmare on your own.

This is a good time to offer a couple of key reminders:

  1. Never pay debts belonging to someone else without exploring whether you are actually liable to pay the debt. As I wrote earlier this summer, you may not even be responsible to pay debts owed by your spouse after he/she dies.
  2. Be careful what you sign. In some cases, nursing homes have produced a document signed by the child (or sibling, niece or other person) in which they actually did accept responsibility for payment. 
    How could this happen? When a person is admitted to a long-term care facility, there is a mountain of paperwork. Amidst all that paper there could be a form by which the signer agrees to pay any unpaid bills. Be sure to read documents before signing them.
    Note: federal regulations prohibit facilities from requiring such forms before admitting a patient.
    Even if you did unknowingly sign such a document, it may be possible to fight back on the grounds that you did not knowingly accept that responsibility.

According to Kaiser Health News, in many cases lawsuits demanding payment are based on fraudulent grounds. Respondents should be sure to consult an attorney. In Iowa, the Legal Hotline for Older Iowans is a resource available to everyone over age 60, regardless of income; contact them at 800-992-8161.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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