Do I have to pay my deceased husband’s medical bills?


Q. I lost my husband six months ago to cancer. Our house was in both our names and he had no will. I presented to the surrogate’s office one bank account in his name with a minimal amount and received a document from them stating this bank account was all the property held in his name. His medical bills are being sent to me and there aren’t funds to pay these bills. What am I supposed to do with this situation? Can they go after the house?
— Widow

A. We are so sorry for your loss.

State law determines how medical debts are handled, and under New Jersey law, a surviving spouse is generally liable for unpaid medical bills.

When a person doesn’t pay their medical bills, the medical provider may take civil legal action to collect the debt, said Jodi Cirignano, a certified financial planner and certified public accountant with Lassus Wherley, a subsidiary of Peapack-Gladstone Bank, in New Providence.

She said if the dispute goes to court, the judge has various options available for resolving the issue. If there are no liquid assets to pay the debt, the judge has the option of ordering the sale of property to raise cash to pay the debt, including a home, she said.

However, there are actions you can take to address this situation.

First, compile all the medical bills, Cirignano said.

“If your husband had health insurance, obtain a copy of the policy and review the coverage,” she said. “Many policies cap the insured’s financial responsibility after annual co-pays and deductibles have been met. This review may uncover discrepancies or billing errors which you can dispute with the health insurance provider.”

Then, if you are responsible for the amounts billed, you can contact the medical provider to negotiate the bills or work out a payment plan, she said.

As part of this process, you may want to engage an estate planning attorney to help with debt negotiations, Cirignano said.

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This story was originally published on Dec. 4, 2020. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.