Medical Bills After Death: Spouse Responsibility

There are few things more painful and emotional than recovering after the death of a spouse. Unfortunately, if your spouse passes away with a pile unpaid of hospital bills and medical debt, you may not have much time to recover before the debt collectors and creditors call.

If you want to avoid issues related to medical bills after death, it’s important to understand your rights as a spouse. You should also understand your financial situation relating to your debts and assets as well as the estate’s.


How a Deceased Spouse’s Medical Bills Work 

Whether or not you’ll be held responsible for your late spouse’s medical bills depends on where you live. Each state has different laws, rules, and enforcement. 

For instance, “as a Pennsylvania spouse, your responsibility for your spouse’s debt depends on the original debt agreement. If you and your late spouse entered into a joint obligation, you are responsible for your share of the debt. You are also responsible for a portion of your late spouse’s debt if you signed as a co-maker or guarantor for a purchase. If your spouse entered into a credit arrangement without you, in most situations, you don’t need to pay any portion of the amount owed.” 

Georgia takes a similar stance on whether a spouse is responsible for medical bills after death. According to the Georgia Probate Law Group, “This is a common question our office receives and is often a concern on the minds of family members. The short answer is that generally speaking, Georgia probate law states that only the deceased’s estate is responsible for the deceased’s bills – the surviving spouse is not personally responsible.” 

While these are the laws in Pennsylvania and Georgia, they might be different in your state of residence. Therefore, you should contact an attorney or healthcare advocate to determine the rules in your state. 


The Effect of Community Property on Medical Debt 

One of the biggest impacts on an inherited medical debt has to do with community property laws. Community property states that most assets and debt are considered joint during marriage and thus are the responsibility of both parties.

Under community property rules, everything you or your spouse purchase or take on counts as being owned by both with some exceptions such as items owned before marriage. This includes debts and assets, meaning that while you inherit everything your spouse owned upon their passing, you also take on their debts. 

While you can use your inherited assets and estate to pay off medical bills and other debt, it might not be enough. In that case, debt collectors may pursue your own private assets to satisfy the difference. 

The only items that don’t count as part of your community property estate are if it was something you inherited, was gifted to you by a third party, or was brought into the marriage. However, exceptions differ by state. This could include inheriting your parent’s estate or having it gifted to you by them. However, because you now own these assets, debt collectors can take them from you to pay for your spouse’s medical bills. 


Spouse Responsibilities in Medical Bills After Death

You must understand your rights and responsibilities as the surviving spouse and whether you’re fully, partially, or not responsible for your spouse’s medical bills after death, y

Community Property 

The first instance where spouses are responsible for medical bills after death is in states with community property laws. “If you and your spouse resided in a community property state, you may be personally responsible for paying your late spouse’s debts, including medical debts, whether or not their estate can cover them. That’s because, in community property states, most assets gained and debts incurred by one spouse during the marriage are owned or owed by the marital “community,” i.e. both spouses.” 

Co-Signer Loans 

If you cosigned a loan for medical expenses with your spouse, you are responsible for any unpaid portion of the debt. The same applies to cosigned car loans, joint credit cards, and any other form of cosigned/co-borrowed debt. 

Doctrine of Necessities 

The Doctrine of Necessities refers to the historical duty of a husband to support a wife. The laws based on this doctrine depend upon the state, but it is nowadays rarely on the books and rarely enforced. If you reside in a state with the codification of this doctrine, you may be responsible for your late spouse’s debt.

Exemptions

You still have rights if you live in a state where you’re responsible for your late spouse’s medical debt. For instance, many states have exceptions and exemptions regarding spouses having to repay medical debts. Here are some of the instances where you might not get held responsible. 

  • The debt was incurred before you, and your spouse got married. 
  • The debt was incurred during a previous marriage. 
  • The debt was incurred after you separated from or divorced your spouse. 
  • Your spouse neglected to notify their treating hospital that they were married. 

In addition, there may be other exceptions depending on your state of residence. 


What Should You Do if Your Spouse’s Debt Collector Calls on You? 

While your spouse’s debt collector has every right to call on you even if you’re not legally responsible and demand money, you have certain protections and rights. One of the main ways that you’re protected from debt collectors is through the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Under this law, debt collectors have restrictions and stipulations about how, when, and how long they can pursue unpaid debts. 

However, while the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act might protect you temporarily, you’ll still have to repay your spouse’s medical debts if you’re responsible for them. You can use the time and protection the act gives you to seek assistance with repaying the debts. Medical advocates, healthcare advocates, and medical billing advocates can help you read through and understand your spouse’s medical bills, negotiate for discounts, and formulate a repayment plan. 


Frequently Asked Questions About Medical Bills After Death 


Who Should I Contact for Assistance Relating to My Spouse’s Medical Bills After Death?

If you live in a state where your spouse’s medical bills pass on to you after their death, contact us at Amazing Healthcare Consultants. Our team of current and former healthcare professionals understand the medical billing system and are dedicated to advocating on your behalf. We can help you understand your medical bills, why you’re being held responsible, and your options.

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