How America Saddles Families with Big Hospital Bills and Debt When A Family Member Dies There

How America Saddles Families with Big Hospital Bills and Debt When A Family Member Dies There


Photo: Funeral house employees remove the coffin of a COVID-19 victim in Bucharest, Romania, Nov. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

When someone dies in the hospital the medical debt is often times passed down to the family. And this debt can be overwhelming. 

Families aren’t only saddled with the medical debt of dying in the hospital, but a family can also inherit all of a deceased relative’s medical bills. This is why financial advisors encourage the Black community to do estate planning. With estate planning and having life insurance, one can use the money a deceased relative leaves behind to pay for outstanding bills instead of burdening the family with them.

Black Americans carry a disproportional amount of medical debt. Some 27.9 percent of Black households carry medical debt compared to 17.2 percent of white non-Hispanic households, according to the National Consumer Law Center.

In general, if there’s not enough money in the estate, debts typically go unpaid, and the family is not responsible. But this is not always the case. Surviving spouses in community property states most likely have some responsibility to pay off debts, Credit Karma reported.

Your obligations to pay off medical debt may depend on your relationship with the deceased and the laws in the state where your loved one lived.

There are other cases where you could be responsible for the debt. According to Credit Karma, the reasons include: 

  • You co-signed for the debt, such as a loan.
  • You’re a joint account holder for a credit card. 
  • The deceased person was your spouse, and you live in a community property state — or the deceased was your parent and state law requires you to pay a certain kind of debt, such as healthcare costs. 
  • You were the executor, or other responsible representative, of an estate, and you didn’t follow state probate laws as required.

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Many families. however, are faced with the medical bills of a parent who has died.

Dell Cameron, a senior reporter at Gizmodo, was faced with this.

“if you’re curious what it costs to die in an American hospital, just got the bill from the day my dad checked in & died at @methodistdallas. ‘discharged’ is a pretty terrible euphemism,” Cameron tweeted, along with a photo of a hospital bill for more then $32,000.

If you share financial responsibility with your parents for a debt, including as co-signing a loan or a nursing home contract, you may be responsible for that debt after your parent dies. And in some states, an adult child could be held responsible for paying their deceased parent’s unpaid medical bills even without shared responsibility for the debts, Credit Karma reported.

Again, this depends on whether your parent died in a state with a filial responsibility statute or filial support law.

Some states do make exceptions for adult children who can’t afford to pay their parents’ debts or if the parents abandoned the child when they were a minor. And, other states may simply not enforce their filial support laws. But counting on this could be taking a chance with your finances.

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Even the insured living are finding it difficult to deal with.

Claudia and Jesús Fierro of Yuma, Ariz., who pay $1,000 a month for health insurance yet found out they owned $7,146 after two stays at a local hospital. In December 2020 Jesús Fierro was admitted to the hospital with a serious case of Covid-19. He spent 18 days at Yuma Regional Medical Center. In June 2021, his wife, Claudia, fainted at work and was sent in an ambulance to the same medical center the next. She was diagnosed and sent home within 24 hours, NPR reported. Then the bill came.

Now post-pandemic, many patients will find themselves stuck with high medical bills. There will be no more full covid coverage by insurers, who are restoring deductibles and copays. In 2020, large insurance companies waived cost-sharing for coronavirus care in 2020, but this year, most insurers have reinstated co-pays and deductibles for covid patients, The Washington Post reported.

Photo: Funeral house employees remove the coffin of a COVID-19 victim from the University Emergency Hospital morgue in Bucharest, Romania, Nov. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)