Let’s say you have a neighbor whom you are not related to, nor are you responsible for any of their bills or living expenses.
Just to be nice you agree to drive them to the assisted living center where they are moving after selling their house.
The nursing home asks you to sign some papers and insists the papers are just a formality. They insist the papers in no way make you responsible for this friend and neighbor to whom you were just giving a ride.
Congratulations. You may have just signed your financial life away for a person to whom you aren’t even related.
Never sign anything — not even the guest list — because it could come back to haunt you.
“I get calls all the time from people who are served with these lawsuits who had no idea that this was even a remote possibility, who call me crying and frantic,” said Anna Anderson, an attorney at the nonprofit Legal Assistance of Western New York who has represented defendants in such suits, including Brooks. “They believe not only that they’re going to lose their own income and their own houses and assets, but also they’re concerned that their loved ones who are still in the nursing home may be potentially kicked out.”
The legal strategy is often rooted in admissions agreements, the piles of paperwork that family or friends sometimes sign, not realizing the financial risks. “The world of nursing facilities is a black hole for most people,” said Eric Carlson, a longtime consumer attorney at the nonprofit Justice in Aging. “This happens in the shadows.”
In most cases reviewed by KHN, the people sued didn’t have an attorney, which can be expensive. In nearly a third, the nursing homes won default judgments because the defendants never responded, a common phenomenon in debt cases. In many cases, lawsuits sought interest rates as high as 18% on top of the debt.
Long-term care officials and attorneys say they must use the courts when bills go unpaid. “It would be a disservice to the hospital’s residents, and to Monroe County’s taxpayers, to allow residents who have assets not to pay what is owed,” said Gary Walker, a spokesperson for Monroe County, which operates Rochester’s largest nursing home, Monroe Community Hospital.
From 2018 to 2021, the county filed 60 debt collection cases, including the lawsuit against Brooks, KHN found.
Nationally, Beth Martino, a spokesperson for the American Health Care Association, the largest nursing home industry group, said lawsuits against families are “not a common occurrence.”
But consumer attorneys in California, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, and Ohio said they regularly see lawsuits against family and friends.
One person even had the nursing home transfer her signature off the guest register to a contract putting her on the hook for a friend’s nursing home bills.
If I were helping a friend check into a long-term living facility I would either refuse to sign anything or, if the facility made a fuss, sign an illegible scrawl that could in no way be mistaken for my signature.