Am I Responsible for the Debts of my Spouse?
As a general rule, you are not responsible for the debts of your spouse. Also, if you marry someone you do not become obligated to pay the debts they incurred prior to the marriage. But there is one major exception to these rules. You are liable for medical debts of your spouse under a legal theory called the Doctrine of Necessities. The necessities rule is not limited to medical bills. It could apply to utilities, rent, food, clothing and any other necessities, but the most common lawsuit utilizing this legal concept is in the collection of medical debts.
In Nebraska, when you marry someone you also marry their future medical debts.If your spouse incurs medical debts during the marriage, you are liable for the debt. Even if the bills only come in the name of your spouse. Even if you did not sign for the debts. Even if you did not authorize the treatment. Even if you are separated. In Nebraska, when you marry someone you also marry their future medical debts. This doctrine has been accepted in Nebraska courts.
At the common law the husband was liable for the expenses of the last sickness of his wife and for her proper burial as for necessaries furnished the family and . . . he continues to be so primarily liable. Therefore, unless the Legislature has, by statute, expressly relieved him thereof he continues to be so liable.In re White’s Estate, 150 Neb. 167 (Neb. 1948). Nebraska, like most states, follows the old English common law and husbands are liable for the necessary good and services provided to his family. But what about wives? Are they liable for their husband’s debts? Yes, wives are responsible for the medical debts of their husbands incurred during the marriage. Nebraska Statute 42-201 provides the rule: The property, real and personal, which any woman in the state may own at the time of her marriage, rents, issues, profits or proceeds thereof and real, personal or mixed property which shall come to her by descent, devise or the gift of any person except her husband or which she shall acquire by purchase or otherwise shall remain her sole and separate property, notwithstanding her marriage, and shall not be subject to disposal by her husband or liable for his debts; Provided, all property of a married woman, except ninety percent of her wages, not exempt by statute from sale on execution or attachment, regardless of when or how said property has been or may hereafter be acquired, shall be liable for the payment of all debts contracted for necessaries furnished the family of said married woman after execution against the husband for such indebtedness has been returned unsatisfied for want of goods and chattels, lands and tenements whereon to levy and make the same. The Nebraska statute basically imposes the common law doctrine of necessaries on wives, although it is not a perfect match. There are differences between the duties and obligations imposed on the husband under the common law as opposed to the duty imposed by Nebraska Statute 42-201. Does that make a difference? IS THE DOCTRINE OF NECESSITIES CONSTITUTIONAL? At least two states have declared the Doctrine of Necessities unconstitutional. In the case of Emmanuel v Mcgriff, the Supreme Court of Alabama struct down the doctrine of necessities as being a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. The Supreme Court of Virginia has also struck down the necessities doctrine as a violation of equal protection in the case of Schilling v Bedford City Memorial Hospital. In that case the court made the following observation:
The [U.S. Supreme] Court has numerous times stated that such a gender-based classification cannot be justified on the basis of “archaic and overbroad” generalizations, “old notions,” and “role typing” which conclude that the wife plays a dependent role, while it is the husband’s primary responsibility to provide for the family. Orr, 440 U.S. at 279-80, 99 S.Ct. at 1111-12; Califano, 430 U.S. at 207, 97 S.Ct. at 1027. “No longer is the female destined solely for the home and the rearing of the family, and only the male for the marketplace and the world of ideas.” Orr, 440 U.S. at 280, 99 S.Ct. at 1112, quoting Stanton v. Stanton, 421 U.S. 7, 14-15, 95 S.Ct. 1373, 1377-1378, 43 L.Ed.2d 688 (1975). It is apparent the necessaries doctrine has its roots in the same, now outdated, assumptions as to the proper role of males and females in our society. It therefore creates a gender-based classification not substantially related to serving important governmental interests and is unconstitutional.HARM CAUSED BY DOCTRINE OF NECESSITIES The original purpose of the necessities doctrine was to help support wives and children by ensuring greater access to medical treatment and other necessities of life. However, in modern times the doctrine is causing some horrible problems and inequities. Married couples are sometimes divorcing for the sole reason of protecting a spouse from unbearable medical expenses. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes a heart-breaking story (Until Medical Bills Do Us Part) of elderly friends who were faced with filing divorce over medical bills. Does it seem fair that married couples are burdened with each other’s medical debts but unmarried couples do not? That hardly seems just. What began as a legal doctrine to provide access to necessities has now become an incentive to terminate or avoid marriage. Is it time to eliminate an outdated, archaic and potentially harmful necessaries doctrine? Image courtesy of Flickr and Robert Kintner