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Medical Bills and Minors – What You Need to Know

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It’s bad enough to owe medical debt you can’t pay. But what if you’re young and being hounded by collectors for medical bills that were incurred when you were just a kid? Our series of articles about medical collection accounts has continually been one of the most popular on our blog. As a result, we’ve been flooded with questions, some relating to medical bills and minors.

Scenario 1: A young person received medical treatment a few years ago when he or she was under 18 and under their parents’ care. The parents didn’t pay the bills and now collectors are trying to collect from the youth. What are his or her rights and responsibilities?

“In most, if not all states, a minor lacks the capacity or legal ability to enter into a contract,” asserts Ted Connolly, a bankruptcy and asset protection lawyer at Looney & Grossman in Boston. That’s why medical providers require their parents to sign financial responsibility agreements before providing care. “To attempt to collect the debt on which the creditor cannot show a contract or an underlying basis would violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act,” he says.

Specifically, he points to this section of the FDCPA:

Unfair practices [15 USC 1692f]

A debt collector may not use unfair or unconscionable means to collect or attempt to collect any debt. Without limiting the general application of the foregoing, the following conduct is a violation of this section: (1) The collection of any amount (including any interest, fee, charge, or expense incidental to the principal obligation) unless such amount is expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law.

Connolly’s advice here:

What a consumer should NOT do in this circumstance: Pay the bill. He or she is not legally obligated to a debt as a minor even though he or she has reached the age of majority. I can see a very remote possibility of the consumer having some responsibility on this debt under an unjust enrichment cause of action. But the creditor would have to sue in court asserting unjust enrichment and I don’t imagine that happening unless the amount owed is huge.

What a consumer should do in this circumstance: 1) Respond to the creditor demanding to see proof of the debt — the creditor must respond within 30 days and it could likely end the collection efforts because the consumer will not be party to the contract; 2) Send a letter mentioning the FDCPA and demanding to cease all correspondences regarding this debt; 3) If the creditor persists in its collection of this debt, the consumer should consider contacting his or her attorney general’s office and/or contacting a lawyer who would take on the case on a contingency basis. (Attorney’s fees and costs can be collected under the FDCPA.)

But there is still a small risk the collector could try to take legal action. It’s true that “minors usually do not have the legal capability to enter into contracts,” agrees Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. “However, in many states, the minor could be sued under the theory of ‘Quantum Meruit’, which is an equitable claim based on the idea that the minor received services from the provider, the minor benefited from the services, and the provider should receive the reasonable value of those services in compensation. No formal contract is required for a claim of quantum meruit, in fact, that’s the whole idea of the theory. It’s the same theory that holds a patient liable for a hospital bill even if he is brought in unconscious (and thus could not have consented to a contract).”

Atlanta bankruptcy attorney Jonathan Ginsberg agrees with both Wu and Connelly, saying that “there are two types of contracts at play in this situation, express written contracts and implied contracts.” The parents probably signed an express written contract when they took their child in for treatment, while the child perhaps could be held responsible under an “implied contract theory — in other words when you ask a physician to perform services there is a reasonable expectation that you will need to pay for those services. The question — can a minor child bind himself contractually if he is under the age of 18? The answer to this will depend on state law. Obviously if the child was 10 at the time of the treatment then the answer is “no.” If the child was 17 1/2 — maybe a closer call.”

Ginsberg says that if this were his client, he would advise them to ask the debt collector to verify the debt “and an explanation as to how a minor child can be bound to a contract that he did not expressly enter and that was created at the time the child was a minor.” That would likely be enough to get them to back down. ” My guess is that the collector would have an uphill battle collecting from a person on a debt incurred when that person was a minor and not legally competent to enter into contracts.”

Of course, Mom and Dad are not off the hook here: they are likely still responsible for the bills, either because they signed an agreement accepting financial responsibility or because they in many states parents are responsible for their minor children’s necessary medical care under what’s called “doctrines of necessaries.”

And that brings up another scenario raised by a reader:

Scenario 2: A father signed a financial responsibility agreement with his son’s dentist when his son was 17. Now it’s a few years later and his son received treatment as an adult but the dental office is still holding the father responsible for the unpaid bill saying that the financial responsibility agreement still applies. Is this something parents need to watch out for?

Parents need to be careful here, especially if their children continue to receive medical care as adults from the same providers they used as children.

“If the financial responsibility agreement is open-ended and would combine as a parental consent agreement coupled with an open-ended co-signing agreement, then Dad might still be on the hook,” warns Southern California consumer law attorney Robert Brennan. But “if it is pretty strictly limited to financial responsibility while the kid is a minor, or is limited to a specific term of treatment (i.e. until the kid is 18), then Dad should be off the hook.”

While this isn’t the kind of problem most parents would anticipate, parents of children who are not managing their finances well may want to avoid future problems by notifying medical providers that they will no longer pay for their care. “The father needs to send written notice to the dentist stating that he disclaims future responsibility for his now adult son’s treatment. By putting the dentist on notice, he would have an argument that the original contact has been canceled and no longer binds him,” advises Ginsberg.

“This is definitely something every parent should keep in mind when signing financial responsibility agreements,” Connolly warns.

Finally there is a third scenario that has reared its ugly head more than once: separated parents who refuse to pay their share of their children’s medical bills.

Scenario 3: Divorced parents have agreements spelled out as to which spouse pays the medical bills, or how they are allocated. The parent who should be paying those bills per that agreement doesn’t and the other spouse is being contacted by collection agencies. What is that parent’s rights, responsibilities and options?

“The controversies in divorces never seem to cease,” observes Connolly. He says that both parents are responsible to the creditor (the medical provider). “The settlement agreement, even if approved by the court, does not stop the creditor’s ability to collect from either parent if both are liable at the time of the debt. What this means to parents: even though one parent may not be responsible under the divorce settlement, he or she will still have to pay in order to avoid collection efforts, negative impact on the credit score, and potential legal action. Both are legally obligated to pay the debt. However, if a parent pays these bills for which he or she was not obligated under the settlement, he or she should collect from the other parent, even if it means going to divorce court to do so.”

“This happened to me personally when I got divorced,” says Michelle Dunn who worked in debt collections for over 25 years, including experience in medical collections. “This is very common. All the person that is not responsible has to do is make a copy of the portion of their divorce decree that shows the other parent is responsible, and send that to the agency.”

If that doesn’t work, Ginsberg suggests that the spouse who is “being dunned go back to the divorce court and file a motion to hold the other parent in contempt. If the dunned parent gets sued, she could cross claim the other parent on the basis of the non-paying parent’s contractual obligations.”

Image: Alex E. Proimos, via Flickr

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

  • Credit Experts

    We are sorry to hear about your difficulties and hope your daughter is now healthy. Showing your daughter as guarantor is almost certainly a mistake. If you made arrangements with one creditor to pay a certain amount monthly with an in-network provider, it’s unlikely that the out-of-network provider is bound by it. Here are a couple of posts addressing the issue:
    Four Medical Bill Myths That Can Cost You Dearly
    Can I Pay a Creditor Less Than I Owe?
    Good luck in getting the financial part of your daughter’s surgery behind you

  • Credit Experts

    Although we are not lawyers and can’t give you legal advice, we can tell you there is a very good chance that you are responsible for those bills. In many states, the parent/parents are required to cover their children’s health care. This post may be useful in understanding how the laws work:
    Help! My Ex is Trying to Stick Me with the Kids’ Medical Bills

  • Michael Bovee

    Are you able to pay anything toward the bill?

  • Credit Experts

    Chelsey —
    You will need to dispute the information in your credit reports with all three credit-reporting agencies. This article tells you how: A Step-By-Step Guide to Disputing Credit Report Mistakes. In your case, you should dispute by mail, and include a copy of your birth certificate. Send it certified mail, and keep copies of everything (your letters and receipts). You can do the same with the collectors, and you may also tell them to stop contacting you about the debt, explaining that you do not owe it (also keep documentation). If you continue to have problems, you can report it to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or consider hiring a consumer-law attorney. You are right; you are not responsible for medical bills incurred when you were 16, and they should not be harming your credit now that you are an adult.

    Good luck to you, and please let us know what happens.

  • Kevin

    The section regarding Ted Connolly’s statements
    could you reply with the correct citation for me? I intend to cite it on my behalf to dispute a bill wrongfully placed in my name, similar to chelsea below me.

    • Gerri Detweiler

      I’m sorry I don’t have that information and it may vary by state. But if you are just disputing it with the provider or the collection agency I don’t think you need to cite specific laws. You can just state in plain English why you don’t believe the bill is yours. If they dispute that you can always file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or get an attorney involved.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Have you tried disputing it with the collection agency? Send them a certified letter, explain that you were a minor at the time and your father was responsible, and asked them to stop collecting the debt and remove it from your credit reports. If they don’t, I’d suggest you file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    If he is an adult, then the medical bills are his responsibility not yours. Did you try to find out whether he is eligible for financial assistance? If not, I’d suggest you get on that as soon as possible because otherwise he could be stuck with a very large bill he can’t pay and bad credit at a time when he’s just supposed to be starting out building credit. I am sure this is a whole new process for him, so you probably need to help him stay on top of these bills and find a way to deal with them.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    As we wrote in the article, parents are typically held responsible for their minor children’s necessary medical expenses, even if they didn’t explicitly sign something to that effect.

    This is a very large bill, so yI would suggest you consult with a consumer law attorney with experience in medical debt. (That may be a bankruptcy attorney.) Unfortunately, if you can’t come to an agreement with the provider, you may be sued in this large debt could be enough to push you into bankruptcy if you don’t have the ability to cover it.

  • Credit Experts

    Did she actually become an emancipated minor?

    Parents are typically held responsible for medical expenses of children who have not reached their 18th birthday.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Sure – let me know how this turns out. Sure sounds like a nightmare but I hope your son’s okay.

  • Sheri

    My mom refused to allow me to take care of any of my medical bills until i moved out in October of 2012. All of the medical bills on my credit score are from early that year or before. I turned 18 in Feb of that year. who is liable for those accounts? most of which are from the year before.

    • Credit Experts

      Your parents are presumably responsible for bills you incurred when you were a minor. Are the bills showing up on your credit reports?

      • Sheri

        yes. there’s a total of seven of them. one is from after i was 18 but my mom insisted she’d take care of it. the rest are all from before but went into collection after. i never got an actual bill for any of them.

      • Sheri

        yes, they are. what can i do? what about the ones after i turned 18 that i didn’t receive a bill for because my mom insisted she’d take care of it?

        • Credit Experts

          What a mess this is for you.
          The bill from after you were 18 would be your responsibility, though it’s easy to see how you were not aware of it. We’re so sorry things worked out the way they seem to have.

          Have you tried to contact the health care provider about the situation? In the case of your credit reports, you can dispute the reports from before you were 18, and those should be removed from your credit reports. You will need to send your birth certificate, and do it certified mail. Here’s how: A Step-By-Step Guide to Disputing Credit Report Mistakes

          And are these bills ones that you can reasonably afford to pay?

          • Sheri

            some of them possibly but it would take me a long time. my husband and i can barely make ends meet now with me being in college.

          • Credit Experts

            Have you been in touch with the health care provider? It’s possible you could negotiate a payment plan (or even a smaller bill). It can’t hurt to ask.

  • Credit Experts

    Dave —
    Bills incurred when you were younger than 18 are almost always your parents’ responsibility. However, it’s a good idea to check your free annual credit reports to make sure the debt is not listed. Check the reports from each of the three credit reporting bureau. If you should find it, you will need to dispute it with the credit bureaus, sending a letter explaining that you were under 18 when the debt was incurred, and a copy of your birth certificate. Here’s how to do that: A Step-By-Step Guide to Disputing Credit Report Mistakes. Good luck to you.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    If you were 15 at the time you received the services, then your parents were probably responsible not you (as you couldn’t enter into a contract at the time). But I’d suggest you double check with a consumer law attorney. If you are on your own now, you may be eligible for help from you local Legal Aid. Will you let us know what they say?

  • lisa

    I have a 15 year old son who recently was arrested and received a public defender. I am recently unemployed, and he’s father is decreased. I am now being told that the court is trying to holdt his step father legally responsible for my son’s legal costs. Can they do that.
    Reason I ask is because he has a bioligical son and when he was going to court for child support the court told him supporting my children didn’t count because they weren’t his kids. But now that they want money they want them to be his kid’s.

    • Credit Experts

      Lisa —
      We’re sorry to hear you’re going through this with your family.

      We aren’t lawyers, though, and it sounds like you and your husband need to talk with one. Given that you are unemployed right now, your best bet is probably a local legal aid society.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Ayesha –

    I wish I could answer your question but I don’t know the answer. It’s not a scenario we’ve run across before. We are going to have to suggest you talk with a consumer law attorney. If you can’t afford one, you may want to see if you are eligible for help from Legal Aid. I wouldn’t just rely on what the creditor or collector is telling you.

  • Credit Experts

    Ann —
    In general, no, parents are not responsible for medical bills incurred by their adult children, even if the children are on the parents’ policy. You can read more about it here: Will Keeping Your Kids On Your Insurance Hurt Your Credit?

  • Emily

    I just started to receive bills from collections after 5 years. I have never once received a bill from the provider. I was 18 years old but still in high school. I was under my mom’s insurance but it apparently did not cover anything. My parent’s had filed bankruptcy and the bills up until I graduated high school should of been filed in there. I am just a little confused because if a parent has to pay child support on a child until they graduate or age 25 if they continue their education, the parent’s should be responsible for the medical bills as well. My mother contacted the lawyer who filed the bankruptcy but said I was responsible because I was 18. I am going to call them because I need the account numbers that were filed under the bankruptcy to see if my bills were filed under it as well. I am not very happy it took them 5 years to contact me about this debt when I have been going to the same place for the last 5 years and nothing has been said to me. I would of taken care of these right away under my parent’s bankruptcy because I had talked to a person that said my parent’s could have filed these bills since I was still in high school. Any suggestion on who I could talk to, to see if I have to pay these bills even though I was in high school? Thanks!

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Emily –

      Make sure your mom asks the bankruptcy attorney what the statute of limitations is for these debts. Although you got a lousy deal here they will come off your credit reports in 7 years plus 180 days from the date the bill was due but wasn’t paid (not from the date they were sent to collections). Does Your Old Debt Have an Expiration Date?

  • Lous

    In September my mom and I (I’m 17) went to the hospital and really they did nothing but look and prescribe me antibiotics because I have no insurance. Long story short, they put me as the guarantor* instead of my mom, even though I’m still underage. Now they’re sending bills in my name after we’ve called them numerous times to put it under my mom’s name. Can I please get some advice? I called the billing company and they said something about facesheet, but didn’t go into clear detail.

    Responses would be much appreciated! Thank you in advance.

    • Credit Experts

      Lous —
      You are right; you are too young to be the guarantor. Who is the “they?” The hospital? Other health care providers? Debt collectors? Have you let the creditors know, in writing, that you were underage? (You can send a copy of your birth certificate via certified mail.) But at 17, unless there are extenuating circumstances, your parents should have responsibility for your medical expenses.

  • gg

    I am hoping you can help me. My husband has paid dental insurance benefits for both his minor children whom reside with his ex in a neighboring state. The ex-wife took the older minor child to the ortho and had braces put on without the consent of the father and knew he had insuracne. The insurance turns out is not picking up the cost beucase she chose an out of network provider. The claim was filed and denied, but he is now expected to pay half the out of pocket cost. It says there is a 180 right to appeal the decision, is there anything that can be done?

    • Credit Experts

      Unfortunately, we’re not lawyers, and it sounds as if you and your husband need legal advice. Parents are generally responsible for the health care expenses of their minor children. But you have a complex situation and may need the advice of an expert.

  • Chrissy

    Last year my step-son was living with his mom and she took him to the ER 2-3 times without giving them his insurance information and she told them he was self pay KNOWING that he had insurance! Bills have been rolling in and we kept calling and telling the hospital to take it up with his mom, which they have tried but she just ignores the phone calls. He is now 17 and bills have still not been paid. My question is, will this get turned over to him being responsible when he turns 18? Or will it stay being his moms responsibility?

    • Credit Experts

      He will not be responsible for health bills incurred when he was a minor.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    As we explain in the article, in some states parents are legally responsible for necessary medical expenses for their minor children even if they don’t sign paperwork agreeing to be responsible. However, I don’t know what the laws in Texas say specifically. You may want to try contacting the Texas Consumer Complaint Center

  • Credit Experts

    If the bill was incurred after she was 18, you are probably not responsible. In much the same way, parents who keep their adult children on the parents’ policies are not responsible for the adult children’s co-pays, etc.

  • Credit Experts

    You are almost certainly not responsible for this bill. To get it removed, you’ll need to dispute it with all three credit reporting bureaus. You’ll want to do this by certified mail, and enclose a copy of your birth certificate. Here’s how to dispute it:
    A Step-By-Step Guide to Disputing Credit Report Mistakes
    Glad to hear you are already monitoring your scores. It’s a good habit.

    • Kkttww

      Thanks a bunch!! :)

  • Gerri Detweiler

    As I mentioned in the article, you may be. You’ll need to consult a consumer law attorney in your state to find out for sure. If you are having trouble finding an attorney I suggest you use the search function on the website of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Are you saying your daughter got a bill from HER birth? And she’s 7 years old now? Sorry but I don’t quite understand the scenario.

    As for the second question, the divorce decree does not affect the original contract with the creditors. Any bills you are jointly liable for you remain 100% liable for in terms of your responsibility to the creditor. Therefore your credit report won’t reflect how you split the bills up in your divorce decree.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    I agree it’s frustrating. Maybe try filing a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau…?

    • Scott

      Thanks for the tip, filed it last night. ;-)

      • Gerri Detweiler

        Let us know what happens!

  • Gerri Detweiler

    You may be. It really depends on state law. However, the other wrinkle is that this debt is now seven years old. If you never made a payment on it than the statute of limitations may have expired. That seems to be the case based on my understanding of the statute of limitations in your state, but I’m not an attorney so I would recommend you check with one to be sure. You can find one through the website of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. This article may help: Does Your Old Debt Have an Expiration Date?

  • Credit Experts

    Miss Ellie —
    Let the debt collector know you were a minor at the time. You should also order copies of your credit reports to see if this collection is reported.
    Here’s how to get your free annual credit reports. If the collection is on there, you should dispute it with each of the credit bureaus, sending each a certified letter, along with a copy of your birth certificate. Here’s how to dispute: A Step-By-Step Guide to Disputing Credit Report Mistakes.

    Good luck, and please let us know how this works out for you.

  • Maegen

    Okay I have a serious bone disease…as a child I had surgeries done with this doctor so there’s a bill my parents didn’t pay (2grand) I am now 24 and I need to see that doctor again for some issues happening concerning my bone disease. do I have any legal rights? the office lady refuses to make me an appointment and I can’t find another doctor who knows my disease! help please

    • Credit Experts

      Maegen —
      We are sorry to hear this. Is there any chance to doctor’s office would accept a payment plan? And is the office clear that these are charges incurred when you were a minor (thus not responsible for them)? There is nothing that we know of that would force a doctor’s office to see or keep seeing a patient. One idea might be to try to crowd fund the money needed to pay that old bill, if that’s what’s keeping you from getting the care you need. Here’s a link:

  • Jordan Gage

    I went to the doctor when I was 16 and they never had my parents sign anything. Now they are after me trying to collect money from when I was a minor. Talked to them and they took it out of my name, but now are my parents going to be affected by it? I am on my dad’s insurance, but he never signed anything and lives in another state.

    • Credit Experts

      If you were a minor when you received treatment, your parents are almost certainly responsible for paying for it. You didn’t say how recently you were 16, so it’s hard to know how late this bill is. But if it has been sent to collections, it can have a significant impact on their credit. They can check to see if it’s on their reports by ordering a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus. Here’s how they can get their free annual credit reports.

  • Credit Experts

    In most other cases, a parent would be responsible. Here’s what we suggest: Send disputes to each of the credit reporting agencies, and include copies of your birth certificate, and an explanation that you were a minor when the charges were incurred. Keep careful records of what you sent and proofs of receipt. Here’s how to file a dispute: How Do I Dispute an Error on My Credit Report?

  • Morgan

    I was under the age of 18 and lived with my mom. A credit collection agency is trying to get me to pay 2 bills from when I was 15 and when I had just turned 17. they together equal $1080.60. I can not pay this at all I am living on my own and going to college. I just turned 18 and pay all my medical bills I get as of now but am getting bills from before I was 18. They keep threatening and saying they will report it to they credit bureau. What are my rights?

  • Marissa

    When I was in high school (age 17) I was covered under my mom and dad’s insurance. I had an exam done and aparently my parents never paid the medical bill. Now I am 20 yrs old and i have bill collectors trying to contact me to pay it. Am I responsible for paying the bill since I was a minor?

    • Gerri Detweiler

      Marissa – We tried to answer that question in the article. There are some grey areas as we pointed out. You can try disputing it in writing with the collector stating that you were a minor and see what happens. But beyond that, we’d have to suggest you talk with a consumer law attorney in your state as this can vary by state.

  • Diamond

    I’m lost I don’t know what to do. When I was 17 I went to the hospital and my bill came out to 1,200. I’m now almost 18 and The bill was never payed and I keep getting phone calls and letters from debt collectors. What do I do In this situation do I have to pay?

    • Credit Experts

      Diamond —
      Let the debt collector know you were a minor when the charges were incurred. You can even ask them not to contact you about the debt, or to contact you only by mail. Then get copies of your credit reports, one from each of the credit reporting agencies. If those collections appear, dispute them (you will see the address of each bureau at the top of the report). You will need a copy of your birth certificate. Send that, plus a letter explaining that you were a minor when those bills were incurred and that you were not responsible for payment. Send it via certified mail. Keep copies of everything. Here are some links to help you:
      How Do I Get My Free Annual Credit Report?
      A Step-By-Step Guide to Disputing Credit Report Mistakes

  • lisa

    My 16 year old daughter called the paramedics for minor pain in her wrist. I was at work and didn’t realize that they were calling and so that meant they were unable to contact me. The paramedics still transported without my consent and for a little wrist pain that my daughter was being overly dramatic about. The paramedics even agreed that this constitute as an emergency. I tried to dispute this charge because I’m didn’t provide consent for her to be transported or treated .They still want me to pay $796 for a non emergency call. I don’t feel this is correct. Any way that I can still dispute this and not pay?

    • Credit Experts

      In general, parents would be responsible (in much the same you would be responsible if you called emergency responders for something that turned out not to require urgent care). We are now lawyers, however, and we can’t give you legal advice.

  • Gerri Detweiler

    Diamond – We tried to lay out the issues involved in this situation in this article, but beyond that we can’t give you legal advice. You may want to talk with a consumer law attorney in your area to find out if you can be held responsible for this debt incurred while you were a minor. If you need help finding one you can visit the website of the National Association of Consumer Advocates. The first consultation should be free or low-cost. You may also be able to get free help through
    Legal Aid.

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