A Pennsylvania debt collection firm has found itself in legal trouble after misrepresenting the state’s Filial Responsibility Law. The attorney general recently initiated a lawsuit that accuses Hamilton Law Group of misusing this rule in its efforts to collect doctor and dentist fees. If a court decides against the collection agency, it will need to compensate victims and pay fines.
Hamilton Law Group cited the Filial Responsibility Law when it tried to convince Northampton and Lehigh County residents that they were responsible for their relatives’ debts. Although it’s true that this rule requires family members to pay each other’s bills in some situations, it didn’t actually apply to the individuals that HLG contacted.
The Keystone State’s attorney general asserts that the firm sent deceptive letters to debtors‘ relatives and ignored a key portion of the law. Filial responsibility rules in Pennsylvania only require a person to pay a family member’s bill if he or she has enough money to do so and the debtor can’t afford to pay. The debt collectors neglected to mention this fact.
When people refused to pay their relatives’ debts, Hamilton Law Group punished them by submitting negative information to a credit bureau. The firm targeted parents, children and siblings of people who hadn’t paid bills. These illegal actions could result in penalties as high as $3,000 per offense if HLG loses in court, according to the Pennsylvania Record.
Although they were established when America remained a British colony, numerous states still maintain laws about filial responsibility. Many legal experts consider it unfair to hold individuals responsible for spending that they didn’t authorize. Fortunately, Nolo reports that U.S. courts seldom enforce these rules. Most states only require payment if a family member has sufficient income.
However, such laws do force relatives to pay each others’ debts from time to time. This is more likely to occur if a debtor doesn’t meet the qualifications for Medicare or Medicaid. Filial responsibility normally just applies to fees for medical, dental or long-term care. It can’t compel a father to pay his adult daughter’s cable TV bill.
The Law’s Impact
In a few situations, courts in Pennsylvania have sided with medical facilities and debt collectors who took advantage of this law. An appeals court required one man to pay $93,000 to a nursing home that cared for his mother. Her pension was large enough that she couldn’t receive Medicaid benefits but had too little money to pay the bill.
In September 2014, the Morning Call reported on a similar situation. A debt collection agency used this law to declare an elderly couple responsible for their deceased son’s $2,000 medical bill. The newspaper noted that elder law attorneys had called for the outdated law’s repeal but state legislators rejected their advice.
How to Respond
If a debt collector contacts you about a family member’s bills, keep in mind that such requests are usually unjustified. They often violate fair collection laws as well. You should ask the agency to send a printed document that confirms the debt’s existence. Don’t write a check unless it is legitimate and you have a genuine legal obligation to pay.
In most situations, you’re not legally responsible for money owed by relatives. This is particularly true in states that lack filial responsibility laws. Only two significant exceptions apply, according to Credit.com. You might have to pay a living or deceased family member’s bill if you co-signed a contract. Some states also hold spouses responsible for each other’s debts.
Abusive collection agencies train representatives to say almost anything that will convince a person to pay. They don’t hesitate to harass people, misrepresent laws and make empty threats. The good news is that federal law bans these activities. It specifically prohibits collectors from communicating with debtors’ relatives about debts that they don’t owe.
Debt collection firms constantly try to use the law to their advantage. You can do the same with our professional legal assistance. Peace of Mind, LLC helps people fight predatory collection agencies by using consumer protection laws to stop the harassment and even gain compensation. To consult with our knowledgeable staff at no cost, please dial 866-4-WAY-OUT today.