Is Surviving Spouse Liable for Deceased Spouse’s Credit Card Debt?
If the surviving spouse was a joint card holder, co-signer or applicant on the account, the surviving spouse is liable for charges incurred on the account. If the credit card debt was incurred while the married couple resided in a community property state, the surviving spouse is usually responsible for the credit card debt based on community property laws, subject to certain exceptions, such as debt which a creditor agreed to treat as separate debt of one spouse only and debt incurred by a spouse prior to marriage. If the circumstances described above do not apply and the credit card belonged solely to the deceased spouse, the surviving spouse is not responsible for the debt.
Irrespective of whether a surviving spouse is legally responsible, credit card companies usually demand payment from the surviving spouse. While creditors may have a valid claim in probate against the deceased spouse’s estate, those claims should be distinguished from claims made directly against the surviving spouse.
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Creditor Claims Against the Deceased Spouse’s Estate
Although the surviving spouse may not be personally liable for the deceased spouse’s debts in some circumstances, creditors may file a claim against the decedent’s probate estate. Assets in the deceased spouse’s estate may be used to pay creditors claims, reducing the amount of assets that pass to the surviving spouse. If you are concerned about receiving your spousal share of the deceased spouse’s estate, consult a probate lawyer about your rights.
For Surviving Spouses and Executors
For more information about the inheritance rights of spouses, title to property, and related estate information for married couples, visit our Spouses and Partners page. If you are the executor or administrator of an estate, visit our page on Estate Administration.
Is Surviving Spouse Liable for Deceased Spouse’s Nursing Home Bills?
Like bills for medical treatment and health care, nursing home bills are also typically treated as necessaries. Therefore, the rules that apply to a surviving spouse’s liability for nursing home bills are generally the same as those that apply to a spouse's liability for the deceased spouse's medical bills. Review the information outlined above regarding medical bills of the deceased. It is important to note that state law varies on this issue. If you believe you are not liable for your deceased spouse’s nursing home bills, contact an attorney.
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Is Surviving Spouse Liable for Deceased Spouse’s Medical Bills?
In determining whether a surviving spouse is responsible to pay the medical bills of a deceased husband or wife, there are several issues to be addressed. The first is whether the surviving spouse signed any paperwork with the doctor, hospital or medical facility agreeing to accept financial responsibility for the services. Review all documents you signed when your spouse was admitted for treatment. If you signed paperwork agreeing to be personally responsible for your spouse’s medical bills, then you are liable for the debt and your own income, assets, and separate property may be used to pay the debt.
If the surviving spouse did not agree to be personally responsible for the spouse’s medical bills, the second issue is whether the deceased spouse’s estate has failed to pay the debt. The provider must first attempt to collect the medical bills from the decedent’s estate, such as by filing a claim in probate. The deceased spouse’s assets must be exhausted before the surviving spouse can be pursued for the debt when the surviving spouse did not accept responsibility for the expenses. When creditors claims are paid in probate, there is an order of priority in which claims must be paid. If there are assets available in the estate for the executor or administrator to pay the decedent’s medical bills, the executor or administrator must pay valid claims in accordance with applicable state probate laws. Sometimes the provider will write off the debt as uncollectible if the estate is unable to pay, especially if the surviving spouse has few assets.
If the assets in the decedent’s estate are insufficient to pay all outstanding medical bills, the next issue to be considered in determining the surviving spouse’s liability is whether the state in which the couple resides enforces the doctrine of necessaries. The doctrine of necessaries is a common law doctrine which requires a husband or wife to pay for items and services that are deemed basic necessities of life, such as food, shelter, and medical treatment. While the doctrine of necessaries originally required a husband to provide for a wife, today the doctrine is usually held to be gender-neutral, thus allowing a wife to be held liable for necessaries provided to her husband as well. The courts in most states currently apply the doctrine of necessaries. However, there are a few states in which it has been abolished. Application of the doctrine of necessaries varies by state. In some states, the doctrine is codified in family expense statutes. Also, if a couple was separated or living apart, the surviving spouse may not be liable.
In states which enforce the doctrine of necessaries, a hospital or other health care provider can sue the surviving spouse to collect payment for the deceased spouse’s medical bills from the surviving spouse’s income, assets, and separate property. In states which have abolished the doctrine, a surviving spouse generally cannot be held liable for the deceased spouse’s medical bills. Of course, there are exceptions.
Even if you are responsible for your deceased spouse’s medical bills, certain property may be exempt. For example, there may be a homestead exemption or a spousal allowance in your state which allows you to keep a certain amount of property. A lawyer licensed in your state can advise you regarding any such exemptions or allowances.
Before paying your deceased spouse’s medical bills with your own property, make sure such claims have been properly submitted and processed with the decedent’s insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. Allow enough time for insurance to fully process the claims. Review explanation of benefits forms or EOB’s to determine the amount actually owed before making payment. Contact a lawyer to learn about your rights and how these cases are typically handled in your state.