The Doctrine of Necessaries Rule Determines if You Must Pay Your Spouse's Medical Debts
You might be responsible for your spouse's medical bills even if you didn't sign a thing when they visited the doctor or checked into the hospital.
Or, you could be on the hook for your child's emergency room bill if your ex-spouse brought your child into the ER without your knowledge or consent.
How can this be? The “doctrine of necessaries,” which is also called the “doctrine of necessities,” gives parents liability for the necessary support of their children. It also, in many states, gives spouses liability for the necessary support of each other. If the doctrine of necessaries applies, creditors have the right to collect a debt from a parent or spouse. Let’s look at spousal liability first. After the table, we discuss the doctrine of necessities and the debts of minor children, why we have a doctrine of necessaries, and what creditors must prove to use the doctrine of necessaries to collect a debt.
Spouses, Medical Debt & the Doctrine of Necessaries
Your state’s doctrine of necessaries may allow creditors to file a lawsuit against you for your spouse’s debts. Some states abolished the doctrine of necessaries. Many states with doctrine of necessaries rules allow a creditor to sue either spouse. A few states allow lawsuits against the husband for his wife’s debts, but not the wife for her husband’s debts. One allows a lawsuit against the wife, but limits the amount creditors can collect. A few do not allow lawsuits for medical debt. Learn your state’s doctrine of necessaries to learn if you have legal responsibility for your spouse’s debts.
Courts consider each spouse as having primarily liability for his or her independent debts. Typically, a creditor may look to a debtor’s spouse for satisfaction of a debt if the state allows liability under its doctrine of necessaries law, and the state considers the debt a necessity.
There is no universal definition of a necessity. Generally, it is services necessary for the spouse’s health and well-being. Many courts apply a very narrow definition of what “necessary for the spouse’s health and well-being” means, and require the provider document each expense to prove it meets this standard. See the discussion below the following table for more on proof.
What the Phrases in the Following Doctrine of Necessaries Table Mean
If your state repealed the doctrine of necessaries, this means creditors cannot use the doctrine of necessaries to collect a debt from a non-debtor spouse. Twelve states abolished the doctrine of necessaries for spousal debt.
The phrase “mutual obligation of support” phrase means the state may not use the term “doctrine of necessaries” in its state statute, but the effect is the same. Be sure to read your state’s statute if you live in a “mutual obligation of support” state to understand what this means for creditors who may be trying to collect from you.
Where we write “Common law rule applies equally to both spouses” we mean the state wrote the common law into its state statute, but modified the common law to apply equally to both spouses.
If you live in one of the dozen community property states, be sure to read your state’s rules carefully. Generally, a debtor spouse’s separate assets are vulnerable to a creditor, followed secondarily by community assets. In some states, a non-debtor spouse’s separate assets are vulnerable to collection, and in others they are not.
Consult with a lawyer in your state if a creditor sues you or your spouse. If you cannot afford a lawyer, see the Bills.com article Where to Find No-Cost Legal Aid if You Have Low or No Income page for more information.
|Repealed?||State Doctrine of Necessaries Rule For Spousal Debt||State Statute or Case Law|
|Alabama||Yes||None: doctrine violates the Equal Protection clause.||Emanuel v. McGriff, 596 So.2d 578 (Ala. 1992)|
|Alaska||Yes||None||AS 25.15.050; Long v. Newby, 488 P.2d 719 (Alaska 1971)|
|Arizona||Medical debt is community debt. However, no cause of action against the separate property of one spouse for medical care of the other spouse.||Phoenix Baptist Hospital & Medical Center, Inc. v. Aiken, 877 P. 2d 1345 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1994)|
|Arkansas||Yes||None||AR Code § 9-11-516 (2012); Medlock v. Fort Smith Service Finance Corp., 803 S.W. 2d 930 (Ark. 1991)|
|California||Spouses must support each other with their separate property if no community property is available.||Family Code Section 914; Credit Bureau v. Terranova, 15 Cal. App.3d 854, 93 Cal. Rptr. 538 (1971)|
|Colorado||State statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses, and joint liability while residing together.||RCW 26.16.205; § 14-6-110 (1995)|
|Connecticut||Both spouses jointly liable for family expenses including reasonable and necessary medical care||Conn. Gen. Stat. 46b-37 (rev. 1989)|
|Delaware||State statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses.||Del. Code Ann., Title 13, § 502 (1993)|
|D.C.||DC statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses, and joint liability.||D.C. Code Ann. § 30-201 (1996)|
|Florida||Yes||None: doctrine violates the Equal Protection clause.||Connor v. Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center, Inc., 668 So. 2d 175 (Fla. 1995)|
|Georgia||Yes||Legislature repealed doctrine of necessaries in 1979.||1979 Georgia Laws 466, 491|
|Hawaii||State statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses.||Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 510-8(h); § 572-24|
|Idaho||Yes||S.L. 2011, Ch. 149, § 1, effective July 1, 2011, repealed Idaho Code § 32-1002||Idaho § 32-1002|
|Illinois||Both spouses jointly liable for family expenses including reasonable and necessary medical care||750 ILCS 65/15; St. Mary of Nazarath Hosp. v. Kuczaj, 528 N.E.2d 290 (Ill. App. Ct. 1988)|
|Indiana||Secondary liability on “financial superior spouse” if responsible spouse cannot pay.||Porter Mem. Hosp. v. Wozniak, 680 N.E.2d 13 (1997); and Barstrom v. Adjustment Bureau, Inc., 618 N.E.2d 1 (1993)|
|Iowa||Reasonable and necessary expenses of the family are chargeable upon the property of either husband or wife; they may be sued jointly or separately||IA Code § 597.14; St. Luke’s Medical Ctr. v. Rosengartner, 231 N.W.2d 601, 602 (Iowa 1975)|
|Kansas||Common law rule applies equally to both spouses||St. Francis Regional Medical Center, Inc. v. Edward Bowles, 251 Kan. 334 (1992), 836 P.2d 1123|
|Kentucky||A husband is liable for his wife’s medical expenses. A wife is not liable for her husband’s medical expenses.||KRS § 404.040; Rhodus v. Proctor, 433 S.W.2d 625; Carpenter v. Hazelrigg, 45 S.W. 666, Atkins v. Atkins' Adm'r, 262 S.W. 268; Somerset Manor, LLC v. Rees, 2011 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 532; and Adams v. Riddle, 2010 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 151.|
|Louisiana||Common law rule applies equally to both spouses||La. Civ. Code art. 2372 and Guidry v. Guidry, 467 So.2d 96, 98 (La. App. 3rd Cir. 1985)|
|Maine||State statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses.||Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 19-A, § 1652 (1998)|
|Maryland||Yes||None||Condore v. Prince George's Co., 289 Md. 516, 531-32, 425 A.2d 1011 (Md. 1981)|
|Massachusetts||Married woman’s liability for necessaries furnished to her family limited to $100 providing she has property worth at least $2,000 and consents.||Mass. Gen. L. ch, 209, § 7 (1994)|
|Michigan||Yes||None: doctrine violates the Equal Protection clause.||North Ottawa Community Hosp. v. Kieft, 578 N.W.2d 267, 273 (Mich. 1998)|
|Minnesota||Wife is liable for certain household items, but not medical care.||Minn. Stat. § 519.05; Boland v. Morrill, 148 N.W. 2d 143 (Minn. 1967); Plain v. Plain, 240 N.W. 2d 330 Minn. 1976)|
|Mississippi||Yes||None||Govan v. Medical Credit Servs., Inc., 621 So. 2d 928 (Miss. 1993)|
|Missouri||Rule applies equally to both spouses||Johnson by Burns v. Johnson, 811 S.W.2d 822, 825 (Mo.App. 1991); Hulse v. Warren, 777 S.W.2d 319, 322 (Mo. Ct. App. 1989)|
|Montana||Husband and wife equally liable for expenses for necessities of the family.||Montana 40-2-106|
|Nebraska||90% of the married woman’s wages exempt from secondary collections.||Neb. Rev. Stat. S42-201 (1993); Nichol v. Clema, 195 N.W.2d 233 (Neb. 1972)|
|Nevada||Spouses must support each other with their separate property if no community property is available. The burden is higher on husbands than on wives.||NRS 123.100; Swogger v. Sunrise Hosp., Inc., 88 Nev. 300, 496 P.2d 751 (1972)|
|New Hampshire||A husband is liable for his wife’s medical expenses. A wife is not liable for her husband's medical expenses.||RSA 546-A:2 (1974); St. Joseph Hospital v. Rizzo and Savard, Nos. 94-268 94-269, (NH 1996)|
|New Jersey||Common law rule. May apply to credit card debt if charges were to support household.||Monte v. Monte, 212 N.J. Super. 557 (App. Div. 1986) and Jersey Shore Medical Ctr.-Fitkin Hosp. v. Estate of Baum, 84 N.J. 137 (1980), 417 A.2d 1003|
|New Mexico||Both spouses contract towards each other mutual obligations of support.||NM Stat. § 40-2-1 (2013)|
|New York||State statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses.||N.Y. Jud. Law § 412; Domestic Relations § 32; Family Court Act § 412-413; Domestic Relations Law § 50; General Obligations Law § 3-301; Medical Bus. Assoc., Inc. v. Steiner, 183 A.D.2d 86, 86 (N.Y. App. Div. 1992)|
|North Carolina||Common law rule applies equally to both spouses||Alamance County Hospitals, Inc. v. Neighbors, 315 N.C. 362, 338 S.E.2d 87 (1986); North Carolina Baptist Hosps., Inc. v. Harris, 354 S.E.2d 471, 472 (N.C. 1987)|
|North Dakota||Applies to both spouses for support but does not apply to medical debt.||1993 N.D. Cent. Code §14-07-08; § 14-09-10.|
|Ohio||State statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses.||Ohio R.C. 3103.01 and 3103.01|
|Oklahoma||Spouses are jointly or severally liable for debts incurred on necessaries furnished to either spouse||OK Stat. Title 43, § 209.1|
|Oregon||Mutual support obligation on both husbands and wives while residing together.||OLR § 108.040; Hansen v. Hayes, 154 P.2d 202 (Ore. 1944)|
|Pennsylvania||Common law rule applies equally to both spouses||23 Pa. C.S.A § 4102; Porter v. Karvivalis, 718 A.2d 823, 827 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1998); Albert Einstein Med. Center v. Gold, 66 Pa. D & C 2d 347, 349, 25 Pa. Fiduc. 337 (1974) (quoting Conway v. Dana, 456 Pa. 536, 539, 318 A.2d 324 )|
|Rhode Island||Mutual support obligations on both husbands and wives.||Landmark Medical Center v. Gauthier, 1994.RI.767 (RI 01/06/1994)|
|South Carolina||Rule applies equally to both spouses||Richland Mem'l Hosp. v. Burton, 318 S.E.2d 12, 12 (S.C. 1984)|
|South Dakota||Applies to both spouses for support but does not apply to medical debt.||1994 S.D. Laws § 25-2-11|
|Tennessee||Mutual support obligation on both husbands and wives||Outpatient Diagnostic Center v. Ralph Christian, No. 01A01-9510-CV-00467, (Tenn. Ct. App., April 30, 1997)|
|Texas||Spouses must support each other with their separate property if no community property is available.||Family Code Title 1, Subtitle A, Chapter 2; Finney v. State, 308 S.W.2d 142 (Tex. App. 1957)|
|Utah||Yes||Spouses are responsible for family expenses and may be sued together or separately.||Utah 30-2-9|
|Vermont||Yes||None||Hitchcock Clinic, Inc. v Mackie, 648 A.2d 817, 819 (Vt. 1993)|
|Virginia||Spouses have liability for the emergency medical treatment for the other, including follow-up care as long as they are living together||Va. § 8.01-220.2|
|Washington||Yes||None||RCW § 26.16.200; § 26.16.205|
|West Virginia||Husband and wife are both liable for the reasonable and necessary services of a physician rendered to the husband or wife while residing together.||WV § 48-29-303|
|Wisconsin||A husband is liable for his wife’s medical expenses. A wife is not liable for her husband’s medical expenses.||Estate of Stromsted v. St. Michael Hosp. of Franciscan Sisters, 299 N.W.2d 226, 230 (Wis. 1980)|
|Wyoming||Parents are liable for family and children’s medical expenses.||Wyoming 20-1-201|
Minors, Medical Debt & the Doctrine of Necessaries
The doctrine of necessaries applies to parents of children who are less than 18 years of age. This means parents are responsible for the well-being of their minor children. It is considered a fundamental public policy for parents to provide and pay for the medical care for minor children, even if the parent has a religious objection to a procedure. Courts allow medical providers to file a lawsuits against parents to compel them to pay for necessary procedures performed on their minor children.
There is a competing rule of law that comes into play here that may be confusing. Courts are reluctant to enforce contract laws against minors. The thinking here is minors lack the capacity to understand contracts, so it is against public policy for courts to enforce contracts against minors. That is why some companies and medical providers have the rule, “You can't sign our contract unless you’re 18 or older.”
What if a minor signs a contract for a necessary procedure, and then does not pay? As just mentioned, courts can and will void contracts with a minors. However, some states provide exceptions to this rule for debts incurred for necessities, such as non-elective medical treatment. This means a minor may be compelled to pay for a procedure they contracted for, even thought they were not 18 when they signed the contract.
Some states require the provider attempt to collect from the minor’s parents prior to turning to the minor for payment. The laws regarding debts created by minors vary significantly from state to state. Consult with an lawyer in your state to discuss your child’s rights and obligations regarding a medical debt.
Why Do We Have a Doctrine of Necessaries?
Under early English common law, a husband and wife were regarded as one legal entity. Married women had no right to own property or to control their finances. Since married women were legally incapable of owning property and incurring debts independent of their husbands, the common law recognized husbands had a duty to support their wives and pay for their necessary expenses. The common law doctrine of necessaries imposed liability on the husband to third parties who provided essential goods and services. This included medical care and treatment to a wife and children.
All but one US state based their statutes on English common law, and most included the doctrine of necessaries as shown in the table above. Many states have since modified their rules over the last 200 years or so.
Proving a Doctrine of Necessaries Case
Liability under the doctrine of necessaries is not automatic. The creditor has the burden of showing the necessities were furnished on the non-debtor spouse's credit. To prevail under a theory of the doctrine of necessaries, most state courts require the provider of the necessary services or goods to show:
- Services or goods were provided to the spouse
- Services or goods were necessary for the health and well-being of the receiving spouse
- The person against whom the action is brought was married to the person to whom the necessary services or goods were provided at the time such services were provided; and
- Payment for the necessaries has not been made.
This means each item for which recovery is sought was provided and paid for, and was a necessary. For example, borrowing money, in and of itself, is too vague a standard to establish a right to an award of necessaries.
Your state may have different, tighter requirements. The table above contains citations to your state statutes or case law on the doctrine of necessaries to help you start learning more about the laws relevant to you.