Paul Muschick, in The Morning Call, describes a couple’s consternation at being pursued for their deceased son’s medical bills. The article is “Dead Son’s Unpaid Bills Haunt His Parents.”
He says that “because of a Colonial-era state law that gained new life following a Superior Court decision a few years ago confirming that in some instances, parents and their adult children are on the hook for each other’s debts.” Fortunately, the Pennsylvania filial responsibility law is not quite as described in the column. The parents depicted in the article are not legally responsible for the old medical bills of their deceased son.
The law says that parents and children of indigent persons are responsible to support them, not clean up their outstanding bills. That means that they can be required to support them while alive. The creditor can pursue the parents or children post mortem, but only if support was pursued while the person was alive.
Mr. Muschick referred to a case decided by the Pennsylvania intermediate court of appeals, Health Care & Retirement Corp. of America v. Pittas, 46 A.3d 719, (Pa.Super.,2012), which affirmed a judgment against a son for his mother’s back nursing home bills. It was very poorly decided. The law did not support the judgment rendered against Mr. Pittas. Hopefully, future panels of the Superior Court will read the statute before deciding the case.
Unfortunately, what the law really says doesn’t matter much in the lives of everyday people being hounded for old debts. They will be squeezed into paying off bills that have already been paid, that belong to someone with a similar name, or that are beyond the statute of limitations, because they cannot afford legal help to fight the collectors.
Debt collectors are required to follow strict rules about who they may contact, and when and how they may address those believed to owe money, but they pay only lip service to the law. Everyday people do not know the rules and usually lack the resources to protect their rights. I talked about how the survivors of deceased debtors are harassed in “Deceased Estate Collection Services.”
The seamy underbelly of consumer credit was devastatingly exposed in a New York Times Magazine article, “Paper Boys,” on August 15, 2014.
“Paper Boys” explains how massive portfolios of bad debt are bought for pennies on the dollar by strong-arm debt collectors. The collection agents have no idea whether the debts are legitimate; nor do they care. The debts are no more than entries on spreadsheets and when the collector starts hounding the claimed debtor, the consumer has no way to demonstrate that some or all of the debt was paid, or that the collector is calling the wrong person. All they can do is ignore the ringing phone or pay the claimed debt. If they take the latter course, that is no guarantee that the collection agency will not re-sell the debt to another collection agency. A letter from an attorney will usually put a stop to the harassment, but most victims of unscrupulous collection agencies believe that could not afford an attorney.
“First State Attorneys – No Way,” describes an encounter with a telephone scammer claiming to be collecting a debt. The debt was nonexistent and the caller made bizarre threats. So-called legitimate debt collection agencies may be little better than scammers.
State and federal regulators could put many of these criminals out of business, but legislators refuse to properly fund consumer protection. The laws against harassing debtors could also include meaningful penalties for violations of consumer rights. Then attorneys would be motivated to pursue claims. We need regulatory reform and laws with teeth. Then, perhaps, everyday people will get some relief.
John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
©2014 John B. Payne, Attorney