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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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