Are You Responsible For a Deceased Spouse's Medical Bills?

Am I legally responsible for my deceased spouse's medical bills?

Am I legally responsible for medical and dental bills incurred by my spouse prior to death? I am the primary on the medical insurance. I was the only one working at the time, my spouse was on disability.

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Highlights


  • Understand that most debts are not forgiven when the debtor dies.
  • Examine how being in a community property state affects you.
  • Look into all options for resolving debt, if you are stuck with the responsibility to pay it.

If you signed an admission form that included guarantor language when your spouse received the medical services, then you promised to pay for your spouse’s debt if your spouse does not. Consult with an attorney in the state where you reside who has experience in consumer law. Show the attorney all papers related to your spouse’s hospitalization. In particular, you mentioned that you paid for your spouse’s medical insurance, which does not necessarily mean you are the guarantor of your spouse’s medical bills.

An attorney will be able to advise you of your rights and liabilities based on your state laws and the documents you signed before and during your spouse’s medical procedures. I realize my answer does not provide the information you seek, but it is impossible for me to even guess what your liabilities are without knowing more information.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that you are not the guarantor of your spouse’s medical bills. (Again, I am not saying you do or do not have contractual responsibility to pay the debt — I do not know that answer based on the information provided.) Does a spouse have common law or statutory liability for a deceased spouse’s debts?

Quick Tip No. 1

The Bills.com Debt Coach offers no-nonsense information about your debt relief options, and will give you the pros, cons, and costs for each.

Deceased Spouse’s Debt

Some people assume a decedent’s debt is forgiven or possibly written off by creditors. The law does not work that way, with the exception of federal student loans. However, spouses or other relatives are not responsible for the decedent’s debt automatically, either. Many collection agents take advantage of a debtor’s grief and ignorance of the law to imply the family must pay the decedent’s debt, but that may not be the case.

When a person dies with a will, the will controls the financial affairs of the decedent’s assets, which is called the “estate.” A will distributes assets, not debts. However, before any assets can be distributed to the heirs, all known debts must be paid by the executor. Therefore, the executor will sell assets in the estate to pay for any debts that remain. Only after the debts are paid will the remaining assets be distributed among the beneficiaries of the will.

If a person dies without a will, this is known as “dying intestate” in lawyer-speak. In this situation, the court appoints an administrator to handle the distribution of the decedent’s assets according to the laws of the state. As with dying with a will, assets are distributed after debts are paid.

Here is a key point: If the estate is insolvent the creditor has no legal right to collect the debt from family members, children, or friends. There is no feudal debt bondage that ensnares an entire family, at least not in the US. In most states, the creditor cannot collect from the spouse either. However, in community property states, the question becomes more complicated.

Quick Tip No. 2

Learn more about your state’s probate laws to understand your rights and liabilities as the spouse of a recently deceased person.

Deceased Spouse’s Debt in Community Property States

Community property states include Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Generally speaking, in community property states, debt incurred by a spouse for the benefit of the family is considered a "community" debt, and therefore the spouse is responsible for repaying that debt.

Does medical debt benefit the community? At first glance, no it does not. However, no two community property states use exactly the same laws. As a consequence, if you live in a community property state and have a spousal debt issue, it is imperative you consult with an attorney in your state so you understand your rights and liabilities in your particular circumstances.

Resolving a Deceased Spouse’s Bills

Medical bills are unsecured debt, which is like credit card debt, a deficiency balance, or a payday loan. See How to Resolve Medical Debt to learn how to pay your spouse’s medical debt, if you are indeed contractually or statutorily responsible for your spouse’s medical bills.

For additional information, see the Federal Trade Commission documents Paying the Debts of a Deceased Relative: Who Is Responsible? and FTC Issues Final Policy Statement on Collecting Debts of the Deceased.

I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.

Best,

Bill

Bills.com

7 Comments

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  • 35x35
    Aug, 2011
    Barbara
    If I found unclaimed funds held in my deceased fathers name, and their was no estate, could I be sued for unpaid medical bills if I claimed the money? What is the statute of limitations on unpaid utility bills, etc.
    0 Votes

    • 35x35
      Aug, 2011
      Bill
      Everyone has an estate, even if his assets at death are only the clothes on his back. Every estate must go through probate. If your father's estate went through probate and not all assets were disclosed, it is possible that the asset you discovered could be subject to a claim by a creditor whose debt was not satisfied.

      If you discovered a bank account with $100 in it, it is likely that this would be considered de minimis, so small that it is of no concern. On the other hand, if you discovered a shoebox full of valuable stock certificates, you should contact an attorney to find out how to revisit the probate case.

      You can't be sued for your father's debts. You are not responsible for the debts he left behind. Your only risk would be if you took possession of an asset that was later determined to have been improperly taken, when it should have gone to satisfy someone else. In that case, you could be required to disgorge the asset. I think the best course of action you can take is to speak with an attorney that specializes in estate law.

      SOL questions can be tricky. In general, utility bills fall under the SOL for written contracts. If you need to know the SOL for your utlity bills, you are best off consulting with an attorney in your area.
      0 Votes

    • 35x35
      Sep, 2011
      davie
      My fiance passed away in august. He DOES NOT have an estate. Just wondering why it says everyone does?
      0 Votes

    • 35x35
      Sep, 2011
      Bill
      If the decedent had any personal property at all, or a claim to any property, that constitutes an estate. Debt is part of an estate, too. Consult with a lawyer who has probate experience to learn more about the probate laws in your state, and the steps you or the decedent's relatives need to take to probate the decedent's estate properly.
      0 Votes

  • 35x35
    Feb, 2011
    Cindy
    Good information, but when I tried to print this page for a friend it printed 69 pages, of which 67 was repeated questions and topics and junk.
    0 Votes

    • 35x35
      Feb, 2011
      Bill
      You know what they say: One person's junk is another person's treasure. I suggest using the Page Range feature in your print menu should you wish to print one of Bills.com's heavily commented pages.
      0 Votes

  • 35x35
    Jan, 2011
    Pies
    My first time here. Thank you for that informative information. It answered my similar question.
    0 Votes