In the United States, medical bills have the power to plunge individuals and families into serious debt, even with the safety net of health insurance.
The unfortunate reality is that people often find themselves unable to pay their medical bills for years, resulting in visits from debt collectors on top of the stress of financial hardship.
Where things can get even more complicated are situations where unpaid medical bills are in the name of a child.
For example, if a child undergoes medical treatment for which their parents cannot pay, will the child eventually become responsible for that debt?
This is the question we’ll be aiming to answer in today’s article, which also explores the broader legal debate of who is responsible for a minor’s medical bills.
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Who Is Responsible for a Minor’s Medical Bills?
United States legislation dictates that a minor’s parent(s) or legal guardian(s) are responsible for paying said minor’s medical bills.
This means, as many would rightly assume, that a minor bears no responsibility for paying off debts incurred by medical procedures, treatments, or medications that they might need.
In a situation where a minor’s parents have separated or divorced, it is typical for the parent with employer-provided healthcare insurance to cover the child’s medical bills.
However, either parent could agree to pay the bills in this scenario.
Where a minor’s parents cannot come to a willing agreement concerning the coverage of their child’s medical bills after a separation, court proceedings will typically ensue.
The outcome of these proceedings is usually a court order for at least one parent to maintain health insurance for the purpose of paying their child’s medical bills.
When the Minor Becomes an Adult
Not all cases of a minor’s unpaid medical bills result in a court order, however. Sometimes, these bills can remain unpaid until the child becomes an adult.
There are those that believe that an adult can and should be legally expected to pay any medical debt that was incurred while they were a child. However, this is a complicated issue from both a legal and ethical perspective.
For one thing, a minor cannot enter into a legal contract because they do not have the capacity to consent to such a binding agreement.
This means that requiring a person to pay medical bills accumulated when they were a child is unethical and legally unsound because that child never entered into the contract – their parents did. Thus, they cannot now be required to uphold a contract to which they did not consent.
Furthermore, because minors are not legally permitted to enter into binding legal contracts, debt collection agencies cannot demand payment from someone who was a minor when the debt was incurred.
Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (more commonly referred to as the FDCPA), debt collection attempts that are not legally sanctioned cannot be enforced.
Since the transferral of a minor’s medical debt from the parents to the now-adult child is not legally allowed, debt collectors are not entitled to attempt this type of collection.
The Issue of Quantum Meruit
There is one legal principle that could potentially be used in an attempt to hold people responsible for medical bills incurred during childhood. This is called Quantum Meruit.
Quantum Meruit is the notion that the provider of a service is entitled to payment from a person who has benefited from said service, even if they did not explicitly agree to any form of payment.
This theory is most commonly used in situations where, for example, a patient is brought into a hospital for emergency treatment while either unconscious or otherwise unable to give explicit consent for the procedure and its financial costs.
In this case, even though there was no verbal or written agreement, the patient will still be expected to pay for their treatment.
To extend this theoretical argument to a child seems beyond the realm of reasonableness to most legal professionals.
With that being said, the fact that most lawyers and lawmakers disagree with the premise has not stopped people from being sued for their childhood medical bills in the past, which is why it is important to be prepared if you have unpaid medical bills from when you were a minor.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Should I Handle Being Pursued For Medical Bills Incurred When I Was A Minor?
If debt collectors are pursuing you for medical debt from your childhood, or even threatening to take you to court, try to remain calm.
First of all, under no circumstances should you pay the debt being asked of you. Under the FDCPA, you are not legally obligated to do so.
Instead, you should contact the creditor and ask for proof of the debt owed. If they do not respond within 30 days, they should remove the debt from their listings.
If they do respond, you should reply by citing the FDCPA and demanding that they cease communication on the matter henceforth.
If the creditor continues to harass you for the debt, you should contact an attorney for yourself as well as the creditor’s attorney general regarding the situation.
Who Is Responsible For An 18-year-old’s Medical Bills?
In the United States, an 18-year-old is legally an adult. An 18-year-old will be responsible for their own medical bills from their 18th birthday onwards, even if they are still financially reliant on a parent or guardian.
Will My Child’s Medical Bills Affect My Credit?
Your child’s medical bills will not, in and of themselves, affect your credit. However, after 30 days, unpaid medical bills become medical debt, at which point, they will start to affect your credit score.
Medical debt incurred while an adult was a minor is a complex issue, especially where large sums of money are owed.
However, the FDCPA ensures that you are not legally responsible for unpaid childhood medical bills after you turn 18.
If debt collectors attempt to hold you responsible for such medical bills, you are entitled to respond with a cease and desist warning and, if all else fails, take legal action.