Dealing with the death of a spouse is difficult enough even without the financial issues involved – like the debt you spouse left behind. Managing debt while grieving can seem insurmountable. Many surviving spouses must learn how to navigate the payment of their deceased spouses’ debts, including learning which debts affect the surviving spouse and which debts the surviving spouse is not responsible for paying. So, what happens to your debt when you die? And what does that mean for your spouse?
When a person passes away, he or she typically leaves some bills behind. Credit card bills, phone bills, and other debts for money spent on personal items and care are generally not the responsibility of a deceased person’s spouse. Money owed to creditors for these individual debts is collected from the deceased spouse’s estate, not directly from the surviving spouse. For example, if a wife uses a credit card in her name to purchase clothes and the bill is unpaid upon her death, the credit card company must collect from her estate, not directly from her widower.
Joint Accounts, Joint Responsibility
There are some cases in which a surviving spouse, not the estate, may be responsible for unpaid bills. Jointly-held accounts, such as credit cards or other debts in both spouse’s names, remain the responsibility of the surviving person whose name is on the account or statement. If the surviving spouse’s name is also on the bill while both spouses are alive, he or she is jointly responsible for paying it before the unfortunate death of the spouse and remains responsible for the debt after the spouse passes away.
Similarly, if a surviving spouse signed an agreement to be responsible for his or her deceased spouse’s bills, the surviving spouse may be liable for those unpaid bills upon the spouse’s death. These agreements are often called financial obligation forms and are signed before services, such as medical procedures, are rendered. A surviving spouse will often be aware that he or she signed such a form. If not, the form that the surviving spouse signed should be shown to the surviving spouse as proof that he or she took on responsibility for the deceased spouse’s debts using a contract.
Ohio Doctrine of Necessaries Exception
While the debts of a deceased spouse generally do not pass to the surviving spouse, there are certain exceptions. Ohio law contains an important exception related to debt of a deceased spouse: the Doctrine of Necessaries (sometimes called the Doctrine of Necessities).
Historically, the Doctrine of Necessaries was the legal embodiment of the idea that spouses should provide necessary items for each other (or, in some states, that husbands should provide necessary items for their wives). This doctrine maintained that, because spouses should support each other and the health of their family, one spouse can “borrow” for necessaries against the other’s “credit,” even if this credit was not set out in a formal contract or other instrument.
The Doctrine of Necessaries in Ohio says that a spouse may be responsible for debts incurred by a deceased spouse for things that are “necessities”, or essential to providing for the family as a whole, since a spouse’s health is a critical part of the entire family’s wellbeing. Ohio Rev. Code § 3103.03(c). Necessities have been defined by various courts to include food, clothing, shelter and medical expenses of the deceased spouse. In some situations, creditors can collect from the deceased spouse’s estate, as in typical collections scenarios, before holding the surviving spouse responsible for any remaining debts for necessaries. In other situations, the surviving spouse is responsible as if the spouses were on a joint account. Due to the complicated nature of the Doctrine of Necessaries, it is wise to consult with a bankruptcy attorney when figuring out which bills one may or may be liable for in the state of Ohio.
Doctrine of Necessaries and Medical Bills
Medical bills are in a gray area under the Doctrine of Necessaries. If a spouse was sick or hospitalized for a long time prior to passing away, medical bills may have piled up. And trying to pay them is often the farthest thing from a spouse’s mind during the grieving process.
Medical debts often come into question because, while they seem individual in nature, a spouse’s medical debts incurred during marriage may also be considered essential to providing for the family. Because of this, a surviving spouse may potentially be held liable for a deceased spouse’s medical bills in Ohio under the Doctrine of Necessaries. Again, this is a complex issue and should be handled by an experienced bankruptcy attorney.
Other common debts may also run into trouble under the Doctrine of Necessaries. These include a couple’s mortgage and a couple’s utilities. Remember that “necessaries” were historically determined to be elements that a family needed to survive and support its members. Sometimes, a telephone company seeking to collect from a surviving spouse may have difficulty proving that telephone service is a “necessity”, since telephone service is not essential to a family’s survival even though virtually every family does have a telephone. Similarly, the Doctrine of Necessities is not crystal clear with respect to mortgages or other home-related debts in Ohio. An experienced bankruptcy attorney can help you navigate these debts and avoid paying more than you have to under the law.
What happens to your debts when you die?
Deciphering what happens to debts after the death of a spouse can be complicated and confusing. In Ohio, the Doctrine of Necessities makes matters even more complicated, adding the need to determine whether an outstanding debt was for a “necessary” and therefore the responsibility of the surviving spouse. To make matters easier on a surviving spouse, you may consider consulting with an estate planner to make decisions about what happens to your debt when you die before it happens – you can rearrange assets and set up contracts to protect your spouse as much as possible from your debts.