What is a surviving spouse’s responsibility for medical bills?

UPDATED: Jun 2, 2011

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What is a surviving spouse’s responsibility for medical bills?

The unpaid medical bills would be the out-of-pocket expenses incurred (deceased had medicare HMO insurance plan by AARP). No separate assets were maintained; checking and investment portfolio was in both names. Surviving spouse did not sign any papers regarding financial responsibility with any medical provider. I have seen the term “doctrine of necessaries” stated as “may be responsible” which seems vague.

Asked on June 2, 2011 under Bankruptcy Law, Missouri


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

Answered 11 years ago | Contributor

In most states one spouse is not typically responsible for the debts of the other. However, as you are aware, there exists something in the law known as the "Doctrine of Necessities".  In some states, MO included, debts incurred for medical treatment are generally considered "necessities". Accordingly, a deceased spouse's estate is primarily liable for medical bills. If the deceased spouse maintained no separate assets, then the state invokes the doctrine of necessities to determine whether or not the surviving spouse would be liable for the such bills. Bottom line, under the doctrin, a spouse may be held liable for necessary medical services provided to the other spouse if the other spouse maintained no separate assets.

At this point you should consult directly with a probate attorney in your area as to your specific rights/responsibilities. 

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The Answer(s) provided above are for general information only. The attorney providing the answer was not serving as the attorney for the person submitting the question or in any attorney-client relationship with such person. Laws may vary from state to state, and sometimes change. Tiny variations in the facts, or a fact not set forth in a question, often can change a legal outcome or an attorney's conclusion. Although AttorneyPages.com has verified the attorney was admitted to practice law in at least one jurisdiction, he or she may not be authorized to practice law in the jurisdiction referred to in the question, nor is he or she necessarily experienced in the area of the law involved. Unlike the information in the Answer(s) above, upon which you should NOT rely, for personal advice you can rely upon we suggest you retain an attorney to represent you.

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