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Doctrine of Necessaries

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Mark Cappel
UpdatedApr 29, 2024
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    13 min read
Key Takeaways:
  • The Doctrine of Necessaries applies in most but not all US states.
  • Parents have liability for the medical debt of their minor children.
  • This rule is also called the 'Doctrine of Necessities'

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.

Struggling with debt? Contact one of’s pre-screened debt providers for a free, no-hassle debt relief quote.

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 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 DebtState Statute or Case Law
AlabamaYesNone: doctrine violates the Equal Protection clause.Emanuel v. McGriff, 596 So.2d 578 (Ala. 1992)
AlaskaYesNoneAS 25.15.050; Long v. Newby, 488 P.2d 719 (Alaska 1971)
ArizonaMedical 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)
ArkansasYesNoneAR Code § 9-11-516 (2012); Medlock v. Fort Smith Service Finance Corp., 803 S.W. 2d 930 (Ark. 1991)
CaliforniaSpouses 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)
ColoradoState statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses, and joint liability while residing together.RCW 26.16.205; § 14-6-110 (1995)
ConnecticutBoth spouses jointly liable for family expenses including reasonable and necessary medical careConn. Gen. Stat. 46b-37 (rev. 1989)
DelawareState 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)
FloridaYesNone: doctrine violates the Equal Protection clause.Connor v. Southwest Florida Regional Medical Center, Inc., 668 So. 2d 175 (Fla. 1995)
GeorgiaYesLegislature repealed doctrine of necessaries in 1979.1979 Georgia Laws 466, 491
HawaiiState statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses.Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 510-8(h); § 572-24
IdahoYesS.L. 2011, Ch. 149, § 1, effective July 1, 2011, repealed Idaho Code § 32-1002Idaho § 32-1002
IllinoisBoth spouses jointly liable for family expenses including reasonable and necessary medical care750 ILCS 65/15; St. Mary of Nazarath Hosp. v. Kuczaj, 528 N.E.2d 290 (Ill. App. Ct. 1988)
IndianaSecondary 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)
IowaReasonable and necessary expenses of the family are chargeable upon the property of either husband or wife; they may be sued jointly or separatelyIA Code § 597.14; St. Luke’s Medical Ctr. v. Rosengartner, 231 N.W.2d 601, 602 (Iowa 1975)
KansasCommon law rule applies equally to both spousesSt. Francis Regional Medical Center, Inc. v. Edward Bowles, 251 Kan. 334 (1992), 836 P.2d 1123
KentuckyA 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.
LouisianaCommon law rule applies equally to both spousesLa. Civ. Code art. 2372 and Guidry v. Guidry, 467 So.2d 96, 98 (La. App. 3rd Cir. 1985)
MaineState statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses.Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 19-A, § 1652 (1998)
MarylandYesNoneCondore v. Prince George's Co., 289 Md. 516, 531-32, 425 A.2d 1011 (Md. 1981)
MassachusettsMarried 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)
MichiganYesNone: doctrine violates the Equal Protection clause.North Ottawa Community Hosp. v. Kieft, 578 N.W.2d 267, 273 (Mich. 1998)
MinnesotaWife 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)
MississippiYesNoneGovan v. Medical Credit Servs., Inc., 621 So. 2d 928 (Miss. 1993)
MissouriRule applies equally to both spousesJohnson 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)
MontanaHusband and wife equally liable for expenses for necessities of the family.Montana 40-2-106
Nebraska90% 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)
NevadaSpouses 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 HampshireA 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 JerseyCommon 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 MexicoBoth spouses contract towards each other mutual obligations of support.NM Stat. § 40-2-1 (2013)
New YorkState 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 CarolinaCommon law rule applies equally to both spousesAlamance 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 DakotaApplies to both spouses for support but does not apply to medical debt.1993 N.D. Cent. Code §14-07-08; § 14-09-10.
OhioState statute imposes mutual obligations of support on both spouses.Ohio R.C. 3103.01 and 3103.01
OklahomaSpouses are jointly or severally liable for debts incurred on necessaries furnished to either spouseOK Stat. Title 43, § 209.1
OregonMutual support obligation on both husbands and wives while residing together.OLR § 108.040; Hansen v. Hayes, 154 P.2d 202 (Ore. 1944)
PennsylvaniaCommon law rule applies equally to both spouses23 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 [1974])
Rhode IslandMutual support obligations on both husbands and wives.Landmark Medical Center v. Gauthier, 1994.RI.767 (RI 01/06/1994)
South CarolinaRule applies equally to both spousesRichland Mem'l Hosp. v. Burton, 318 S.E.2d 12, 12 (S.C. 1984)
South DakotaApplies to both spouses for support but does not apply to medical debt.1994 S.D. Laws § 25-2-11
TennesseeMutual support obligation on both husbands and wivesOutpatient Diagnostic Center v. Ralph Christian, No. 01A01-9510-CV-00467, (Tenn. Ct. App., April 30, 1997)
TexasSpouses 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)
UtahYesSpouses are responsible for family expenses and may be sued together or separately.Utah 30-2-9
VermontYesNoneHitchcock Clinic, Inc. v Mackie, 648 A.2d 817, 819 (Vt. 1993)
VirginiaSpouses have liability for the emergency medical treatment for the other, including follow-up care as long as they are living togetherVa. § 8.01-220.2
WashingtonYesNoneRCW § 26.16.200; § 26.16.205
West VirginiaHusband 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
WisconsinA 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)
WyomingParents are liable for family and children’s medical expenses.Wyoming 20-1-201

Doctrine of necessaries rules for each state. Source:

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:

  1. Services or goods were provided to the spouse
  2. Services or goods were necessary for the health and well-being of the receiving spouse
  3. 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
  4. 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.

Dealing with debt

If you are struggling with debt, you are not alone. According to the NY Federal Reserve total household debt as of Quarter Q4 2023 was $17.503 trillion. Student loan debt was $1.601 trillion and credit card debt was $1.129 trillion.

According to data gathered by from a sample of credit reports, about 26% of people in the US have some kind of debt in collections. The median debt in collections is $1,739. Student loans and auto loans are common types of debt. Of people holding student debt, approximately 8% had student loans in collections. The national Auto/Retail debt delinquency rate was 4%.

Each state has its rate of delinquency and share of debts in collections. For example, in Michigan credit card delinquency rate was 3%, and the median credit card debt was $374.

Avoiding collections isn’t always possible. A sudden loss of employment, death in the family, or sickness can lead to financial hardship. Fortunately, there are many ways to deal with debt including an aggressive payment plan, debt consolidation loan, or a negotiated settlement.