State laws known as filial responsibility laws have the potential to stick unwitting family members with relatives' hefty long-term-care costs.
One of the best-known examples comes from a court case in Pennsylvania, in which a man was ordered to pay $93,000 to cover his mother's outstanding debt to a nursing home.
The case, Health Care & Retirement Corp. of America v. Pittas, showed how filial laws, on the books in about 30 states, can wreak financial havoc on families that don't prepare for long-term-care needs.
Some observers point to a more recent case, though, to demonstrate the breadth of how courts enforce filial laws, which basically establish that children have a duty to care for their parents, and which experts believe will become more relevant as lifespans increase and healthcare costs swell.
The case, Eori v. Eori, broadens the net of financial responsibility — while the Pittas case was an example of an institution recouping money from a patient's child, the Eori case pits siblings against each other. It determined that each had a financial responsibility to financially support their ailing mother, who required in-home care.
"This should open [financial advisers'] eyes to, even if you don't have that client that ends up in a nursing-care facility, they're still going to have end-of-life costs, and if they become indigent or broke and rely on others, that could have a big impact on all the family members," said Jamie Hopkins, professor of retirement income at The American College of Financial Services.
Roughly half of Americans turning age 65 today will require long-term care. In 2017, the national median monthly cost for a home health aide was about $4,100, according to Genworth Financial Inc. The monthly cost swells to more than $7,100 for a semi-private room in a nursing home.
While states' filial laws differ, the Eori case — also from Pennsylvania — is a "fair reading" of what may be expected in other states, Mr. Hopkins said.
While there haven't been many lawsuits involving filial laws and long-term care in the public eye, Hyman Darling, president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys, believes it's "just a matter of time before there are more of these cases," especially because a few have gotten some traction in the courts.
"When it gets out there and people see it, they know there's an opportunity to hang their hat on it to try to get some money," said Mr. Darling, who's also a partner at law firm Bacon Wilson.
The Eori case pitted Joseph Eori, who helped care for his 90-year-old widowed mother Dolly, against his siblings Paulette and Russell (who, after the lawsuit began, changed his name to Joshua). Because they weren't providing financial assistance to their mother, Joseph sued under the state's filial laws.
The mother had cancer, dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and required 24-hour care that came via adult day care as well as three in-home caregivers, the cost of which exceeded her Social Security income, according to a court document.
Ultimately, a Pennsylvania state court mandated in 2014 that the brother, Joshua, pay $400 per month in support — or, $4,800 a year — which was upheld on appeal. The daughter consented, before appeal, to also pay $400 a month.
Interestingly, the court found that the mother wasn't "destitute," but needed extra income to help meet her monthly expenses and therefore was considered "indigent."
"Now, we've seen a court say, 'You do have to pay up, Family Member No. 2 and 3,'" Mr. Hopkins said.
Observers believe financial advisers would be wise to become more aware of filial responsibility laws, which underpin the importance of having a conversation with clients around long-term-care planning.
"The people who don't know it should, because it's going to become more prevalent," Mr. Darling said.