You are responsible for your spouse’s medical debt in some states. In most states, these bills are the individual’s sole responsibility. In others, the husband or wife is responsible because of:
- The Doctrine of Necessaries – Gives parents responsibility for the necessary support of their children, and it gives the same duty for one spouse to take care of the other.
- Community Property – Both spouses are liable for all debts taken during the marriage.
There are nine community property states, and 39 states use some variation of the doctrine of necessities. There is some overlap between the two, but in most states, one spouse is liable for the medical debts of the other.
The Doctrine of Necessaries: Are You Responsible for Your Spouse’s Medical Debt
The doctrine of necessaries may make one spouse liable for the necessary expenses of the other. Each state that uses these rules has different variations of how creditors may collect from a husband or wife. Further, there is no universal definition of necessity, but it generally includes services for health and well-being. It also requires the creditor to prove it meets the court’s standard of necessity. States the require spousal liability for medical expenses include:
|Arizona||Indiana||Missouri||North Carolina||South Dakota|
|Delaware||Louisiana||New Hampshire||Oregon||West Virginia|
|District of Columbia||Maine||New Jersey||Pennsylvania||Wisconsin|
|Hawaii||Massachusetts||New Mexico||Rhode Island||Wyoming|
|Illinois||Minnesota||New York||South Carolina|
If you live in one of these states, you should find out what the doctrine means for your liability both as a spouse and a parent. Liability is not automatic, because the creditor must show:
- They provided a good or service to the spouse
- The good or service was necessary for their health and well-being
- The person the creditor seeks action against is the spouse of the individual who received the good or service
- The husband or wife did not pay the creditor
Some states have tighter requirements than others, but most states include medical bills unless it is elective. You should speak with a local attorney if you feel like you shouldn’t be required to pay for a debt from your spouse.1
Community Property: Are You Responsible for Your Spouse’s Medical Debt
Community property states hold each spouse equally responsible for debts they accumulate while married. It doesn’t matter whose name is on the bill creditors can seek judgments against both. These states include:
In these states, your creditor can pursue you, your spouse, or both of you for medical bills accumulated while you are married.2
The Common-Law States Where You Aren’t Responsible for Your Spouse’s Medical Debt
There are a few states that are not community property jurisdictions and do not follow the doctrine of necessaries. These include:
These states don’t allow creditors to collect from the husband or wife unless they co-signed for the obligation.
Special Cases When you May be Responsible for Your Spouse’s Medical Debt
Even if you live in an area where you are responsible for your husband’s or wife’s debts there still may be gray areas. What happens if our loved one die? What happens if you separate or divorce? if you’re responsible, can they garnish your wages? Can there be a conflict of interest when the doctor treating you also decides if it is a necessity?4
During Separation, In Case of Divorce, and After Death
In many states when your husband or wife passes away you are liable for the debts that accumulated while you were married, including doctors’ bills. In common law states and jurisdictions that enforce the doctrine of necessaries, some debts are not jointly and severally liable. These accumulated
- Before marriage
- After divorce
Even if you don’t live in one of these states, you still may co-sign for a doctor’s bill. If you do, then you are obligated to pay it. There are many cases where the spouse is obligated to pay the medical bill of a deceased loved one. If you aren’t sure, you consult a local attorney familiar with estate law in your area.3
It depends on where you live if a creditor can garnish your wages for your spouse’ medical bills. In a community property state, they can come after both the same way, which means they can garnish the husband’s and the wife’s wages. If you live in a jurisdiction that upholds a doctrine of necessaries, they may be able to, as well. It depends on how the court defines a necessity. If they do determine you are liable for your husband’s or wife’s bills then they can garnish your wages, too.
Conflict of Interest
Who decides if a medical procedure is necessary? Usually, the doctor makes that determination. But their office of the hospital is also the one billing you. In a state where only medical necessities can be collected from the spouse, this may present a problem.
The court should resolve it according to their own criteria, but this can be a significant gray area. If you feel the medical entity should not be able to collect from you, then you may need to hire a lawyer to represent your case.
Final Thoughts on When You are Responsible for Your Spouse’s Medical Debt
Married couples share their lives together, the good and the bad, even the medical bills. There are times, though, when those bills can be overwhelming. A debilitating illness or end of life care can be both emotionally and financially draining.
Separating your spouse from your medical bills can be a blessing if you live in a state where that is possible. If you don’t, then bankruptcy may be the answer if you can’t afford them. In other cases, properly funded and structured retirement accounts protect your money.
If you find yourself in a situation where your spouse accumulates large medical debts and you can’t afford them, you should seek help both with a financial advisor and a competent attorney to make a strategy to handle your situation.