Must I Pay Spouse’s Debt If They Die?

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If husband and wife did not own together or separately any land, a house, a boat etc. but only rented a home and had no children, is the surviving spouse responsible to pay medical bills that insurance did not cover?

Certain circumstances may warrant a creditor to seek payment of a spouse’s debt, specifically those associated with medical care or other expenses deemed essential, from a spouse when the individual who initially incurred the debt lacks sufficient resources. This practice, rooted in traditional common law, is referred to as the Doctrine of Necessaries.

To illustrate, let’s consider a hypothetical situation involving a couple, John and Jane. If John incurs substantial medical bills and lacks the financial resources to cover these expenses, the hospital or healthcare provider, in this case, the creditor, may legally seek payment from Jane, his spouse. This is despite the fact that Jane herself did not directly incur these costs.

In more complex scenarios where both spouses have either jointly incurred a debt, agreed mutually to repay the debt, or where one spouse has explicitly guaranteed the debt of the other, the creditor retains the right to pursue either or both spouses for the debt. For instance, if John and Jane jointly sign a loan agreement for a car or a home, and later default on their payments, the creditor (in this case, the bank or financial institution) can legally pursue either John, Jane, or both for the outstanding debt.

However, it’s crucial to note that if one spouse incurs an expense deemed necessary – which can range from medical bills to legal fees or even clothing in certain cases – the creditor is obligated first to seek payment from the spouse who directly incurred the expense. In our example, if Jane purchases professional attire for a job interview, and she fails to make payment, the clothing store must first seek payment from Jane before considering John liable.

This brings us to an important caveat: only when the debtor spouse’s assets are insufficient to cover the debt can the creditor seek payment from the non-debtor spouse. If Jane, in our earlier example, has enough assets or income to pay off her clothing store debt, the store cannot immediately turn to John for payment.

Interestingly, the structuring of assets doesn’t influence this process significantly. Even if spouses maintain their assets separately – with Jane having her bank account and John his – this doesn’t absolve the non-debtor spouse from potential responsibility for the debtor spouse’s necessary expenses, should the debtor spouse’s assets prove inadequate.

Furthermore, prenuptial or postnuptial agreements, in which spouses agree to be individually responsible for their own medical expenses, do not provide complete protection against creditors. If John, for example, incurs medical expenses he can’t pay, despite a prenuptial agreement stating he would be responsible for his own medical costs, the hospital could still legally pursue Jane for payment.

Lastly, spouses should be aware that even separation may not shield them from creditors seeking reimbursement for ‘necessaries’. If John and Jane were to separate, but John incurs necessary expenses he can’t cover, Jane may still be held financially responsible, despite their separation.

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