Unpaid Medical Bills and Divorce in New Jersey – Spousal Liability

While the general rule is that your spouse’s individual debt does not become your debt just because you’re married, in the case of medical bills there are situations where one spouse may be liable for the other spouse’s medical debt. The medical debt exception arises from the common law rule in New Jersey that a husband should be held liable to a third-party who furnishes “necessary” goods or services to his wife. Originally the duty was owed from a husband to a third-party provider. However as women began to attain relative economic parity with men the duty of support became reciprocal. With respect to outstanding medical bills the court does not simply make a wife liable for her husband’s medical debt and vice versa.  In order to successfully seek or obtain payment of one spouse’s medical debt by the other a medical creditor has to demonstrate a particular set of circumstances, which are set out below:

Has the Creditor First Sought Payment from the Spouse to Whom Services were Provided?

A creditor seeking to collect on a medical debt incurred by one spouse cannot initially pursue collection from both spouses (unless both spouses expressly agreed to be responsible for the debt). Under New Jersey case law the creditor has to first seek payment from the spouse to whom the medical services were provided. In order to seek payment of the debt from the other spouse the creditor has to show that after attempting to collect the debt from the spouse who received the medical services the debt remains unsatisfied because the income or assets of the spouse who received medical care were insufficient to satisfy the debt.

Does the Marriage Subsist?

Even if the creditor can demonstrate: (1) that they sought collection of the medical debt from the spouse who received services, and (2) that the recipient of the medical services could not satisfy the debt out of their income and assets, in order to pursue the debtors spouse the creditor still has to show that the recipient of medical services and their spouse are in a viable marriage – i.e., a marriage that subsists. As New Jersey case law shows not all marriages are considered viable.

National Account Systems, Inc. v. Mercado, 196 N.J. Super. 133 (1984)

In the National Account Systems case the husband entered the hospital for treatment while he was physically separated from but still married to the wife. He later died in the hospital, and his final medical bill was over $16,000. The hospital sought to collect the unpaid medical debt from his wife. The court analyzed the parties marital circumstances in order to determine whether there was a viable marriage. The court found that from the date of their initial separation until the husband’s passing the parties did not resume cohabitation. The court further found that during the four-year period of their separation the husband and wife made no support payments to each other. They had no written separation agreement, and neither party had commenced a divorce action prior to the husband’s death. Based on these findings the court held that because of the parties four-year separation, and more importantly due to their financial independence from one another, they were not a “financial unit”. The court reasoned that under the circumstances of the case the medical provider could not have reasonably assumed that the wife’s income or assets would be available for payment of the husband’s medical bill. The creditor’s court action against the wife to collect the medical debt was dismissed.

If you have questions about whether you may be liable for your spouses unpaid medical bills, or if you have any other family law related questions, do not hesitate to contact me at 201-731-3086 (toll-free at 844-431-3380) or via email using the contact form. I have been representing clients in family law matters in northern New Jersey for over 20 years. primarily in Bergen, Hudson, Passaic, Essex, Union and Middlesex counties. Whether you contact my office by telephone or email your initial consultation is free of charge.