Applying New Jersey’s filial support law, an appeals court in Pennsylvania affirmed a decision denying a Pennsylvania residential facility’s effort to hold the elderly New Jersey parents of an adult resident liable for the unpaid balance of his specialized services. Melmark v. Schutt (Pa. Super., No. 2253 EDA 2016, July 19, 2017).

New Jersey resident Alexander (Alex) Schutt, 31, has severe autism and requires one-on-one care.  In 2001, the Princeton (New Jersey) Regional School district placed Alex in Melmark, a Pennsylvania residential facility that serves people with intellectual disabilities.  Alex’s services at Melmark were paid for, first, by the Princeton School District, then by the New Jersey Department of Developmental Disabilities (NJDDD).  Following a dispute over Melmark’s rates, NJDDD terminated funding to Melmark on March 31, 2012.  NJDDD gave the Schutts advanced notice that Alex would be transferred to another facility, and that if they did not agree to the transfer, NJDDD would cease payments to Melmark. The Schutts elected against transferring Alex to a facility and filed an appeal to the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law, which was denied. On March 31, 2012, the Schutts did not take custody of Alex, leaving Melmark to care for him without receiving payment. Alex continued to reside and receive services there until May 15, 2013, running up an unpaid bill of $205,236.38.  Melmark sought payment of the bill from Alex and Alex’s parents, New Jersey residents Clarence and Barbara Schutt, individually and as his guardians.  The Schutts are age 71 and 70, respectively.

The case presented a “choice of law” question. New Jersey’s filial support law would shield the Schutts from financial responsibility for Alex’s care because New Jersey law expressly shields parents over 55 years old from any support obligations for their adult children who are eligible for public assistance. Pennsylvania’s filial support law, meanwhile, would provide no age-based exception to parental responsibility to pay for care rendered to an indigent adult child. Thus, the “choice of law” had a direct bearing on whether New Jersey residents Clarence and Barbara Schutt were personally liable for the unpaid balance for specialized services rendered to their autistic son, Alexander, by Melmark, a Pennsylvania residential care facility assisting individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism.

The trial court, the Court of Common Pleas of Delaware County, applied New Jersey’s filial support law and found the Schutts had “no legal obligation to care for their son in their individual capacity as his parents” because the Schutts were over age 55 and their son Alexander was an adult eligible for public assistance. Melmark, Inc. v. Schutt  (Pa. C.P. Delaware, No. 13-001572, Sept. 16, 2016).

Melmark appealed, arguing that the court erred in applying New Jersey law rather than Pennsylvania law.  Melmark contended that the New Jersey law’s sole purpose is to recoup public funds spent on behalf of an indigent family member younger than 18 years old, and that is not the case here.  Melmark also argued that Pennsylvania had a greater interest in applying its filial support law because it allows Pennsylvania facilities that care for indigent individuals to be paid by responsible family members.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the trial court’s judgment finding in favor of the Schutts, individually, and against Melmark.  The court found that the New Jersey law expressly protected its elderly parents from financial responsibility for services provided to their public assistance-eligible, indigent adult children.  The court further found that New Jersey’s interest in protecting elderly New Jersey parents from caring for their adult New Jersey child are greater than Pennsylvania’s interest in the collection of a private debt for services rendered.  The court agreed with the lower court’s finding that Mr. and Mrs. Schutt were not unjustly enriched by Melmark’s services to Alex because they had no legal obligation to care for him, they did not personally receive any services, and they never executed a contract with Melmark.

The appeals court decision is attached here – Melmark v. Schutt

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(Adapted from an article published on the ElderLawAnswers website. Mr. Vanarelli is a founding member of ElderLawAnswers.)