The Moneyist: My deadbeat dad arrived at my brother’s Communion high on cocaine. He punched the cab driver. Am I liable for his end-of-life care?

United States

Dear Quentin,

My parents divorced when I was very young due to my father being a physically and emotionally abusive alcoholic and drug addict. 

Although my brother and I spent sporadic weekends with him when we were in elementary school, I stopped visiting him during my middle-school years, and cut off all contact when I turned 18. 

He’s getting older now and I’ve kept tabs on him through mutual friends and family. I know he’s been unemployed for 20 years and would be homeless if it wasn’t for his girlfriend, whom he lives with, although it sounds like she recently kicked him out. 

He still drinks and smokes heavily and from what I understand, and he abuses other drugs as well. I think he has outstanding gambling debts as well as debt for bail bondsmen, parking tickets and driving fines, credit cards, etc. 

He has a myriad of medical issues and he’s in poor health but not dying, although I suspect his health is going to deteriorate rapidly over the next decade given his destructive lifestyle. 

‘He is not someone I want in my life, especially now that I have children of my own.’

He is not someone I want in my life, especially now that I have children of my own. I last saw him when he showed up high on cocaine and punched his cab driver outside the church during my brother’s Holy Communion. 

As my husband and I plan for our future, I’m wondering what sort of impact my deadbeat father is going to have on our lives. Are there any responsibilities I would have as his adult child, such as his medical care or financial commitments? 

I don’t know if he has a will or what is in it if he does, and honestly, I’m concerned he may have a provision that could impact my future, such as paying for his funeral expenses or inheriting property I don’t want. 

I’m also concerned he may list me as his health-care proxy in a medical power of attorney. Could I be on the hook for his unplanned end of life care, or worse, any financial commitments he has? I want nothing to do with him now or in the future. 

Thank you for any advice you can provide.

The Daughter

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Dear Daughter,

When you think of the Blessed Sacrament, that’s not what most people — the cab driver included, I’m sure — have in mind. I’m sorry that happened on your brother’s big day. For your father, nothing was sacred. A child needs stability and a sense of safety, and having a figure in their life who is so unpredictable can lead to years, even a lifetime, of anxiety and trauma. 

It may help to look upon your father as sick, rather than bad, and lost rather than cruel. That could help you to heal and to forgive him, so you can move on from the anger and humiliation of such incidents. I say that because I suspect that a part of your fear about what happens now is related to your experience of dealing with a highly volatile figure. That said, you can decline to be a person’s power of attorney.

There are filial responsibility laws in over two dozen states, but they are rarely enforced by the courts. One relatively famous case in Pennsylvania in 2012, Health Care & Ret. Corp. of Am v. Pittas, brought the subject of filial responsibility back to the public’s attention. In it, a son was found liable for his mother’s $ 93,000 nursing home bills, but they were very unusual circumstances.

A child needs to feel safe, and having a figure in their life who is so unpredictable can lead to a lifetime of anxiety and trauma. 

His mother, who was in her 60s, was injured in a car accident and went to a nursing home. She was subsequently moved to Greece where two of her other children lived, putting them out of the jurisdiction of the courts and the nursing home’s debt collectors, leaving the unpaid bill. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania found in the home’s favor.

Each case is unique, of course, and there has not been a flood of similar cases as is sometimes suspected after such a ruling. Your father was not there for his children, and a judge would take that into account in the unlikely event that a nursing home came after you for payment of bills, even if your father lived in one of the 29 states with such laws.

These are ancient laws. “U.S. filial responsibility statutes were derived from England’s Elizabethan Poor Relief Act of 1601, which required the grandparents, parents, and children of every poor, blind, lame and impotent person to financially support that individual if they were able to do so,” according to the law firm Burke, Costanza and Carberry.

“Federal and state laws permit Medicaid to seek reimbursement from recipients’ estates. However, an increasing number of recipients are hiding their financial assets to meet Medicaid’s standards. Some seniors transfer their ownership assets to their children through trusts to become Medicaid eligible without risking their children’s inheritance,” it adds.

But that’s not the case here. You are out of your father’s life and he is no longer in your life causing chaos. It may be hard to sleep easy while he is alive, as your childhood self expects his troubles to come knocking on your door once more, and your adult self mourns the father you wished you had, but never did, one who could also be a grandfather to your children.

A lawyer would best advise you, of course, and a therapist could help you parse apart all of the tangled feelings about this man who once loomed so large in your life. His shadow remains, but it’s just a shadow and, based on what you have told me, you can look to the future without any real consequence of your father’s life or death impinging on your peaceful existence.

You have the right to be happy, and to be free. 

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The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.More from Quentin Fottrell:

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