In New Hampshire Must You Pay The Medical Bills Of Your Spouse? Revisiting the Doctrine of Necessaries

A recent widow whose late husband had been in a nursing home for 2 years before his death one day and is informed that she owes over a $100,000 to the nursing home where her husband died.  She lives modestly and does not have the money.  Is she required to pay for a spouse’s medical or hospital bill if that spouse has died?

What about the case where one is separated but not yet divorced?  Would a person be obligated to pay the bills of a husband or wife from whom one is separated and planning to divorce?

Under the ancient common law Doctrine of Coveture,  a married woman did not have independent legal rights apart from her husband or as my old law school professor said, “At law man and wife are one and he is the one”.

A wife fared very poorly  under the harsh Doctrine of Coveture. If the husband failed to provide the basic necessities of life, the wife could not obtain food, shelter, medical services or other necessities on her own nor could she enter into a contract with a creditor, such as a merchant or shop owner, for her basic requirements of life or her “necessaries”.

Eventually the Doctrine of Coverture’s harshness was counteracted by the Doctrine of Necessaries which created a duty by law for a husband to provide his wife’s necessaries. If a husband failed to provide for his wife, she could legally obtain her necessities on credit. By law, the husband was required to pay the creditor.

Eventually the impact of both of these doctrines lessened with the passage of time. The Doctrine of Coveture died out and the Doctrine of Necessaries faded into obscurity as equalization of women’s economic potential and legal rights developed.

In 1995 the Doctrine of Necessaries was given new life in a New Hampshire case.  In Cheshire Medical Center v. Holbrook, 140 N.H. 187 (1995) a hospital sued the husband for the medical bills of one of its patients arguing that under the Doctrine of Necessaries the husband was liable for the necessary medical care of his wife. The husband argued that the doctrine was ancient history and no longer viable.

The NH Supreme Court stated that despite the evolution of women’s rights in NH, “the common law rule of necessaries has endured”. The court stated that even though “the gender bias in the [Doctrine of] [N]ecessaries …violated our constitution’s equal protection guarantees” a husband still must pay for his wife’s medical bills because of his obligations under the marital contract and so must the wife pay for the husband’s bills of necessities.  Through the marital contract both husbands and wives must pay for debts for the basic necessities of the other spouse if the spouse is unable to pay her or his bills. including medical, hospital and nursing home bills.

In Cheshire Medical Center, the case above, the court ruled that the hospital must seek payment first from the spouse who received the medical services, in this case the wife. If she is unable to pay, then the hospital can pursue payment from the husband. Applying the Doctrine of Necessaries and updating it through the marital contract, the court found that if a spouse of either gender was unable to pay his or her medical bills, then the other spouse must pay.

Finally in 2010 the NH Supreme Court fine tuned the Doctrine under current law in Southern New Hampshire Medical Center v. Hayes, 159 N.H. 711 (2010) and held that for a creditor to prevail in a suit for reimbursement of the goods and/or services the creditor must establish that goods or services necessary for the spouse’s health and well-being were provided to a spouse who was unable to pay;  that the creditor has not been paid  and that the 2 spouses were married at the time

Under the marital contract there is a mutual expectation between the two spouses that they would share assets, expenses, and debts.

What about cases where husband and wife are separated but not divorced? Conceivably the court could find that the Doctrine of Necessities applies and one spouse must pay the debt of the other spouse, assuming that the spouse who incurred the debt is unable to pay.

In New Hampshire if a spouse who incurred a medical bill or nursing home debt is unable to pay, the non-debtor spouse must pay if they are still married.

Getting back to the widow of our example, she must pay the $100,000 nursing home debt for her late husband.

However, she does have a choice and that choice is to file bankruptcy.  By filing bankruptcy the widow will wipe out her obligation for the debt. Her right to file bankruptcy in this case, as in other bankruptcy cases, is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.  All citizens of the U.S. have a constitutional right to file bankruptcy.  In the example of the widow it means that she can get out from under crippling debt that could have affected her for the rest of her life.

At Seaton and Lohr we have been representing people in bankruptcy for over 30 years. Our experience and dedication to our clients has effectively helped our clients manage debt in a way that does not negatively impact them for the rest of their lives.