You might be responsible for your spouse’s medical bills even if you didn’t sign a thing, writes Mark Cappel in bills.com. It’s called the Doctrine of Necessaries Rule. In Indiana, a spouse can be obligated to pay for medical care received by the other spouse if the debtor spouse is unable to satisfy his or her own debt.
The whole “necessaries” thing started back when women had no independent legal right to procure food, shelter, or medical services on credit separate from their husbands, so the law counterbalanced that “legal disability” by creating a duty on the part of the husband to provide all necessities for his wife. In Indiana today, there is “secondary liability” for both spouses. The liability extends only to amounts that don’t exceed the non-debtor spouse’s ability to pay at the time the debt was incurred.
When does the issue of “necessaries” commonly arise? When someone dies in a nursing home, leaving a surviving spouse and unpaid medical care bills. If a medical provider has not been paid for its services, it can look to the other spouse for repayment of the debt.
In an actual Indiana court case dating back to 2013, the Court of Appeals held that a nursing home could not collect money from Ms. Comb’s husband to pay expenses incurred before her death. Why? The nursing home did not first work to collect from the patient or her estate. But had the nursing home first tried to collect from the estate, the nursing home could have gone after her husband.
What about the responsibility of children? Could the nursing home have gone after Ms. Combs’ children to try and collect the money owed? Indiana does, indeed, have a filial responsibility law, which says that adult children have a legal obligation to financial support their parents if the parents are physically and/or mentally unable to take care of themselves.
The Indiana Lawyer summarizes the situation as follows:
Indiana Code 31-16-17, “Liability for Support of Parents,” specifies that if a child is “financially able,” and a parent is “financially unable” to pay for medical care, the child shall contribute to the costs. “
As elder law attorneys in Indiana, we know that nursing home costs can wipe out the savings of all but the wealthiest families. Meanwhile, achieving Medicaid eligibility is becoming more and more difficult, with regulations involving “look-back periods”, penalties, and waiting periods. Our law firm has the experience to help families avoid financial ruin – and avoid the sort of Doctrine of Necessaries and filial responsibility legal complications which can arise.
There are ways to avoid the estate settlement delays and legal costs such as the ones the Ms.Combs’ survivors needed to go through. Make it your “doctrine of necessaries” to update your estate plan now.