May 10, 2021

Responsibility for Your Spouse’s Debts

Just being married doesn’t automatically make you responsible for your spouse’s debts. That is the general rule. I am not liable for bills on my husband’s credit card – unless I signed on the account and agreed to be liable.  But, absent such an agreement or a specific law, such as one making a surviving spouse liable for funeral and last illness expenses which cannot be paid from the deceased spouse’s estate, the creditor of one spouse cannot collect from the other.  Of course, there are exceptions.

One exception is a law that makes both spouses responsible for certain expenses that are essential to basic family life.  Here, the creditor can collect directly from either spouse – that means even from the spouse who didn’t make the purchase or incur the expense.  These are: 1) doctor and dental bills for either spouse, 2) hospital bills for the spouses and minor children, 3) rental payments on the family residence, and 4) any article that has gone to support the family or the joint benefit of both spouses. 

The first three items seem straight forward.  The fourth is broader but still limited. For example, in one case, the wife was required to pay the supplier for an oiler burner for the family home that was ordered by the husband. But, in a later case, the court said that a widow was not responsible for her husband’s nursing home bills because the personal, care, food and lodging provided were services and not “articles.” 

But wait, there are exceptions to the exceptions.  At any time that the spouses are separated, a spouse who has a support obligation to the other spouse and who has provided reasonable support to the other spouse is protected from liability under the law. And a spouse who has been abandoned doesn’t have liability for the other spouse’s bills.  For example, a wife was sued for medical expenses for her husband resulting from a car accident in which the husband was injured and his girlfriend killed.  The wife was held not liable because the husband had abandoned the wife and their five children, moved in with the girlfriend and had failed to support his family.

This article isn’t about allocation of responsibility between spouses of their debts, whether joint or individual, when the spouses divorce. That topic is covered elsewhere in my website.

A version of this article first appeared in the May 6, 2021 edition of The Cheshire Citizen.

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