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Care home contracts – the importance of reading the small print

With average care home fees now hitting £1,000 a week in some parts of the country, it has never been more important for families to check contract terms with a fine tooth comb before taking up a place for a loved one.

Although the temptation may be to sign first, read later, particularly if you are anxious you might lose the room if you don't act quickly or if your relative is in frail health, taking the time to read the small print can save anxiety and upset later on.

Crucially, if you have doubts about a contract do not sign it. If you have a simple query, ask the care home provider to explain or if you don't understand the terms, or think something is unfair, seek advice from an accredited solicitor.

Key concerns

Last year, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched a review into care home fees after the death of a resident and whether people are being treated fairly. Following a consultation period, it will report back with its findings.

Three key areas of concern highlighted are:

  • Inappropriate fees including the practice of continuing to charge full care fees for a month or more after a resident has died;
  • Charging for storing residents belongings after they have died - the CMA says these fees should be reasonable and that families should be made aware of them;
  • Continuing to charge the full weekly rate after death including local authority contributions and NHS Nursing Allowance. This could add up to hundreds if not thousands of pounds depending on the level of support needed.

How to make sure you know what you are signing

When you have the contract in front of you, prior to your loved one moving in to a home, make sure you understand what you are signing and that the contract clearly lays out your expectations as well as those of the care home.

All residents should have a written agreement before moving in, a contract or terms and conditions, and this also applies if the place has been arranged and funded by the local authority.

This agreement should include:

  • Notification of any rules and regulations;
  • Information about what happens if care needs change;
  • What happens if a resident goes into hospital for any length of time;
  • How long fees remain payable after someone dies;
  • Details of how much the fees are, what they cover and when they are due;
  • Details of what services are included and which aren't - for example, attending hospital and dental appointments or going to the hairdresser;
  • How the terms work regarding deposits and refunds - for example, what will happen if a care home breaches a term of the contract?

Make sure the contract doesn't include a clause excluding the care home from liability in cases where it has failed in its care and duty of a resident or their possessions.

Checking the small print

Claire Davis, director of Solicitors for the Elderly - a national organisation committed to providing the highest quality legal advice for older people - said her members regularly come across many families who are either considering their position when a loved one needs to go into care or after their death when dealing with their estate.

"At either of these points it is vital that families are aware that they are entering into a contract with the care home and that the contract will contain various terms covering the charging of care home fees," she said.

"This includes time during which their loved one is in hospital and when they have passed away. It is always advisable for family members to check the contract terms with a specialist accredited solicitor so that these can be explained in detail, giving them the opportunity to challenge any terms that seem inappropriate or unfair."

It is also important for families to check the invoices they receive after the death of a relative in care and if the fees are unclear, to seek specialist help.

For help and advice, please contact Wards Solicitors' Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity team, now one of the biggest in the South West. The majority of its lawyers are either student or full members of Solicitors for the Elderly. In addition, Jenny Pierce, who leads the team, was recently appointed to its board of directors.