Ask Christina: Are Medical Bills Passed on to Children in the Event of a Parent’s Death?

Health, Managing Medical Bills
Ask Christina

By NerdWallet Health health finance expert Christina LaMontagne.

Question:

My mother is terminally ill. She was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and isn’t expected to live through the year. Obviously, she has incurred massive medical bills and those are only expected to grow. Though bills are not our top concern right now, my siblings and I wonder if her bills will be our responsibility once she passes away.

Answer:

I’m so sorry your mother’s health is failing and understand what a stressful period this must be for you and your family.

The medical costs associated with a terminal illness can be a burden both for the patient and for their loved ones, but in most cases, the children of a deceased patient will not be responsible for the medical bills.

There are exceptions where debtors could come to you and your siblings for payment:

  • If you cosigned or guaranteed any of your mother’s medical expenses
  • If your mother gave you property or other items of value in the days leading up to her death
  • If your mother receives Medicaid benefits in a long-term care facility

In general, your mother’s estate would be responsible for any outstanding debts. If she relinquished property to you before she died, debtors may see this as fraudulent activity and an effort to shirk financial responsibilities, giving them justification to seek payment from you.

In the case of Medicaid, there are 29 states with filial responsibility laws. These laws allow the state to seek reimbursement for Medicaid payments from children. However, these laws are rarely enforced.

Despite there typically not being legal justification for medical providers seeking payment from children, some still try. If you find yourself at the receiving end of debtors’ phone calls and letters for your mother’s outstanding debts, you can enlist help from a professional. An attorney can most accurately determine whether or not you have any responsibility for your mother’s medical bills. If you are liable, a medical bill advocate could help in negotiating lower balances and identifying any billing errors that are unnecessarily inflating the amount due.