Other than a few birthday cards, preschoolers generally don’t get mail. That’s why a Credit.com reader was surprised when the reader’s 5-year-old son received a debt-collection notice:
My son is 5 years old and I recently received a letter in the mail from a collection agency addressed to him saying he owes a debt from his former hospital…he has insurance so I’m not sure how he can owe anything but what advice do you have for me and what can I do to pursue this?
Based on this short message, there are two issues to explore: First, having health insurance doesn’t mean all medical expenses are covered, so it’s definitely possible a health care provider required payment for whatever service the child received, even after insurance. Medical bills often go to a debt collector — sometimes, that’s the first time the patient learns about them — and because collection accounts damage your credit standing, it’s important to address them as soon as you can.
The other issue this reader brings up is what parents and guardians should do when a debt collector pursues a minor.
“Minors can’t contract, by law,” said Craig T. Kimmel, a consumer attorney and founding partner at Kimmel & Silverman. “The general rule is a parent is not responsible for a contract by a minor.” Of course, there’s an exception, and it includes medical care. Medical services fall under the doctrine of necessaries, which varies by state, but generally means a parent or next of kin can be held liable for bills a person incurs out of life-sustaining necessity, like food, shelter and medical care.
“If the debt’s legitimate, the parent must be responsible for the child, whether or not the parents brought the child to the hospital,” Kimmel said.
Because the parent is the one responsible for the debt, the name on the account and contact information used by the debt collector should be updated.
“Calling the debt collector and addressing that is the most straightforward way,” said April Kuehnhoff, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “To the extent that the parents are having trouble with the debt collector, they can always go back to the hospital.”
The debt should be reported to the adult’s credit report — a child shouldn’t have a credit report, but parents can request one to make sure the debt doesn’t generate a credit report, and if it does, they can work to fix the problem.
That’s sort of the neat-and-tidy scenario in a situation like this, but it’s possible there’s something messier going on. If your child is receiving debt collection notices or other debt- or credit-related mail, it could be a sign of identity theft — that someone is using your child’s personal information to fraudulently obtain and use credit instruments or medical care. As with any debt collection notice, you should first request a letter of validation from the collector, and if the debt isn’t legitimate, it’s time to start investigating what happened. This is another reason you’d want to request a child’s credit report: to see if they’ve been a victim of identity theft.
Kimmel mentioned another possible reason a minor might receive a debt collection notice: The debt collector is pursuing someone else with the same or a similar name. In that event, the consumer should try to correct the confusion, but if the collector insists on pursuing the wrong person (the minor), the adult has legal recourse under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
More on Identity Theft:
- Identity Theft: What You Need to Know
- How Do I Dispute an Error on My Credit Report?
- What Should I Do If I’m a Victim of Identity Theft?