medical equipment

What happens to dead spouse’s medical bills?


Q. My husband recently passed away. We did not have joint accounts. The only thing in his name was the home we shared. I expect his medical bills to astronomical. Am I responsible for the bills? And because I solely paid for the house, can I have his name removed from the deed? Also, the death certificate doesn’t have his middle initial. Will that be a problem?
— Wife

A. We’re sorry for your loss.

Generally, under New Jersey law, a spouse is liable for the medical bills incurred by the other spouse regardless of whether they kept their assets in separate or joint accounts, said Shirley Whitenack, an estate planning attorney with Schenck, Price, Smith & King in Florham Park.

She said the medical providers can file a collection action against the surviving spouse and may obtain a judgment placing a lien on the house if the bills are not paid.

“The wife should consult with an estate administration attorney to see whether the payment of the medical bills can be negotiated down or written off,” she said. “If the wife’s assets are insufficient to pay the outstanding medical bills she may have to consult with a bankruptcy attorney as well.”

Now, the deed to the house.

Whitenack said the document reflects that it was owned by both you and your husband, and then you inherited his interest in the house when he died – by operation of law. So your husband’s name does not need to be removed from the deed, she said.

“Since the husband had an ownership interest in the house prior to his death, removing his name from the deed now will not extinguish the claims the medical providers may have against the property he owned at the time of his death,” she said.

On the death certificate, the fact that it does not include your husband’s middle initial should not be a problem because the death certificate contains his Social Security number and therefore, there should be no confusion about the name of the person who died.

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