Is wife responsible for a deceased husband’s medical bills?

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Is wife responsible for a deceased husband’s medical bills?

After 44 days of marriage (28 days in the hospital) husband dies. Current bills are $215,000. Had insurance coverage of his own, plus another from his wife’s work, however not sure what the deductible is for both coverages. Also, can only account for bills from wife’s coverage; have not yet gotten husband’s insurer’s bills (from his daughter). NM attorney recommends that wife file for bankruptcy to protect her from bills. A second attorney in OK points out that the wife may not be responsible for hospital bills, although most occurred after the marriage. Also, not responsible for any other bills because her husband took on debt before the marriage and wife did not sign for car loan, home loan, credit cards, etc.

Asked on January 3, 2011 under Bankruptcy Law, New Mexico

Answers:

M.D., Member, California and New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 10 years ago | Contributor

No matter how long (or short) the marriage was, these 2 people were legally married.  Consequently, there is some potential exposure for the surviving spouse as to their deceased spouse's debt.  In most states, the general rule is that unless a spouse agrees to be bound for another spouse's debt, they are not so responsible (i.e. they bear no liability for such debt).  However, there are exceptions in some states regarding medical bills.  Additionally, the general rule does not apply in community property states; and NM is such a state.  Therefore, any debts that were incurred after the marriage would be deemed "community debts" and the surviving spouse would bear financial responsibility for repayment.  Without knowing the exact amount of these debts it's hard to advise whether or not the surviving spouse should file for bankruptcy.  What the wife needs to do now is to find out the amount of medical bills for which there is no coverage.  Based on that sum, a decision can be made as to whether or not bankruptcy is a necessary option. 

Note:  Regardless of the state, a surviving spouse is not liable for pre-marital debt (unless they have specifically agreed to be). So the wife is not legally obligated to re-pay the car loan, home loan, or other debts incurred before the marriage. 

Assuming that this couple lived in MN, they should once again speak to the NM attorney or at least seek a second opinion form another NM attorney.


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