Who has to pay medical bills when a spouse dies?

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Q. If husband and wife did not own together or separately and land, a house, a boat etc. but only rented a home and had no children, is the surviving spouse responsible to pay medical bills that insurance did not cover?
— Spouse

A. We’re sorry to hear of the loss of your spouse.

You’re probably not going to like the answer.

A creditor may pursue collection against a spouse for an expense incurred by the other spouse with respect to “necessaries” only where the financial resources of the spouse who incurred the expense are insufficient, unless both spouses agreed to pay the debt, said Catherine Romania, an estate planning attorney with Witman Stadtmauer in Florham Park.

“In cases where both spouses incurred the debt, or agreed to pay the debt, or one spouse guaranteed the debt of the other spouse, the creditor may go after either or both spouses,” she said. “However, where one spouse incurs a medical expense or other expense deemed necessary — including in some cases legal fees or clothing — the creditor must first pursue the spouse that incurred the expense.”

Only if the spouse’s assets are insufficient to pay may the creditor seek payment from the non-debtor spouse, Romania said.

Each spouse holding his or her assets in separate names does not avoid responsibility for the debtor spouse’s medical bills if the debtor spouse’s assets are insufficient to pay such bills, Romania said.

“Signing a pre-marital or post-marital agreement whereby each spouse agrees to be responsible for his or her own medical expenses also does not prevent a creditor from pursuing payment against the non-debtor spouse if the debtor spouse, or the debtor spouse’s estate, lacks the ability to pay,” she said. “Additionally, spouses may not be able to avoid a creditor seeking reimbursement with respect to `necessaries’ merely by separating.”

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This story was originally published on Aug. 3, 2022.

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