I am not licensed to practice law in Ohio so the following should not be taken as legal advice, but simply as information based on general principles of law which is intended to educate. If you need legal advice, please consult a lawyer who holds Ohio licensure.
The debt was a debt of the estate, not of you personally. You are not legally required to pay the debt. You CAN pay the debt if you would like to do so.
I have linked below a recent article which appeared in the New York Times on the attempt to collect debts from the relatives of the deceased.
Oops. Somehow I overlooked that you signed personally for the room fees. If you signed a contract, you are obligated to perform it, and if you do not perform it, the other party can sue you for breach of contract. So what you describe is not a debt of the estate, it is a debt of you personally.
Sorry for overlooking what you plainly wrote. If you need legal advice, please consult a lawyer who holds Ohio licensure, as I do not and cannot give you legal advice with respect to Ohio matters.
With all due respect to counselor Taylor, I disagree with his analysis.
While technically the contract angle is correct, I believe you have a strong duress/unconscionablility defense here. Essentially the nursing facility forced you at a time of great stress to agree to act as a surety on your mother's expenses in order for her to receive care. Courts have ruled that since medical care is a necessity compulsory waivers of liability are not valid and I think you can make a strong argument that the same should apply here for the very reason you describe.
I don't like what I read here. This seems to me to be a really lousy approach by the nursing home. It would be helpful to have more facts. There may also be a statute of limitations defense available here as well. On the otherside, even though the house burned, the land is worth something and if there were any assets at all left they must first go to satisfy your mothers debts.
Talk with a lawyer. I strong showing of a willingness to litigate coupled with a complaint the the Ohio licensing board regarding unfair business practices may be sufficient to make this bill go away.
I appreciate the counsel of my colleague Mr. Garner. There may well be a statute of limitations defense here and a duress defense, but I cannot tell whether they actually do apply based on the facts you provide.
Let me indicate that Mr. Garner's reference to a nursing home differs from what you stated, which was that your mother's stay was in hospice. It is in the nature of hospice that the death of the one admitted is imminent and the care to be given is palliative. Hospice care is given to make one comfortable as one dies. One can die equally in a hospice or in a hospital; but one is more likely to die comfortably, and with dignity, in a hospice.
So that's the set of conditions under which you signed a contract. If you mother was in hospice, it was because her death was thought to be imminent. She was not admitted to hospice to save her life, but to make her comfortable. Certainly this would undercut a defense of duress. Everyone admitted to hospice is expected to die. If hospices can't require sureties, the institution of hospice will fail, making death with dignity a more difficult process for everyone.
The statute of limitations in Ohio for breach of contract actions will be something you can discuss with a lawyer licensed in Ohio.
Again, I disagree with my learned colleague.
The facts presented indicate, "I was told that in order for my mother to admitted into the hospice unit of the nursing care facility I had to sign that I would cover her expenses for room fees. When your mother is dieing of a terrible disease like leukemia, you'll sign anything to alleviate their suffering." To me this is the essence of a duress defense.
Perhaps I simply have an incorrect read, but I envision, as Mr. Taylor points out, a situation where death is reasonably imminent and a loved one earnestly desires a comfortable, attended hospice setting for the person who is failing, and is willing to sign anything to ease the suffering of their loved one.
I would look first to a statute of limitations defense and then thr duress angle. While I think duress could be successfully argued, I don't practice in Ohio.