Sunday, April 28, 2019
PA Supreme Court's Choice of Law Ruling Obligates New Jersey Family Members to Provide Filial Support For Disabled Adult Son In Pennsylvania
In what appears likely to be the final chapter in a long-running "reverse" filial support case in Pennsylvania, a unanimous Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on April 26, 2019 that Pennsylvania statutory law applies to determine the liability of older New Jersey parents on the issue of whether they must pay for the long-term care costs for their son in a private institution in Pennsylvania. New Jersey law, unlike Pennsylvania law, expressly exempts any person "55 years of age or over" from a support obligation for an adult child.
I've been following the case of Melmark v. Schutt since at least 2016, and you can review some of the history of the case here, here and here. Until this ruling, the parents had successfully argued that New Jersey's law controlled the case. From the Supreme Court's opening footnote, however, where it outlined evidence of the parent's annual income, it was apparent the Court was outraged that parents who could be characterized as wealthy could refuse to pay a nonprofit care provider. The Court ruled that there was a "true conflict" between the laws of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and recognized that while many factors such as the domicile of the parents and the stipulated 'residency" of the son pointed to the application of New Jersey law, the most significant contact factor was the "harm" of nonpayment, occuring in Pennsylvania. The Court concluded:
"[A]lthough New Jersey's welfare laws apparently provide for Alex's support at public expense, there is no reason to suppose that New Jersey has adopted a public policy favoring imposition of the ongoing cost of care for indigent adults on an unwilling private third party [i.e., Melmark].... [T]he exemption in New Jersey's statutory support law for parents over 55 years of age cannot justifiably override Pennsylvania's governing statute -- at least for the period between April 1, 2012 to May 1, 2013 -- so that the financial burden of Alex's care falls upon Melmark."
I have long thought the case has uniquely "tough facts," and Pennsylvania has a history of using Pennsylvania's law to obligate families to cover certain costs of care for indigent family members. Further, the Court also ruled that the institution had a viable related theory of recovery under Pennsylvania common law, sounding in quantum meruit or unjust enrichment.
The opinion has potential implications for cross border claims of filial support in the more typical Pennsylvania fact pattern, where adult children are asked to pay the costs of care for an aging parent who fails to qualify for Medicaid. E.g., Health Care & Retirement Corp. of America v. Pittas. I can see the potential for out-of-state children to be subject to a claim for reimbursement, especially if they have any role in choosing a Pennsylvania facility where Medicaid is unavailable to pay, facts that might also give the Pennsylvania court personal jurisdiction over the out-of-state children.