Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
Home / News / News Story / Wife liable for deceased husband's medical debts

Wife liable for deceased husband's medical debts

A Guilford County woman could be liable under the common-law doctrine of necessaries for her late husband’s medical bills, even though they had kept separate finances throughout their marriage, the Court of Appeals has ruled.
The wife’s counsel had argued that the doctrine of necessaries is “fundamentally flawed” and based on the “antiquated” law that a married woman is legally disabled to handle her own financial affairs.
Judge James A. Wynn Jr., writing for the panel, said it was bound by precedent, including the state Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in N.C. Baptist Hospitals v. Harris, 319 N.C. 347, which held a wife to be liable for her husband’s necessary medical expenses.
Although the state Supreme Court has abolished a common-law doctrine before Wynn actually wrote the 1998 opinion in Nelson v. Freeland, 349 N.C. 615, which discarded the common-law distinction between licensees and invitees in premises liability actions the panel said the Court of Appeals did not possess the same authority.
“We must uphold the trial court’s grant of summary judgment” in favor of the hospital, Wynn wrote.
Chief Judge John C. Martin and Judge Linda H. Stephens concurred in the case, Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital Operating Corp. v. Hawley (North Carolina Lawyers Weekly No. 09-07-0150, 5 pages).
“The Harris case actually extended the doctrine to cover both spouses wives as well as husbands and we think that was a recognition of the changing times,” said Greensboro attorney Thomas E. Cone, who represents the hospital.
“In this case, the facts were essentially identical to the Harris case. I don’t think the Court of Appeals had any leeway to rule in any other manner.”
The wife had specifically argued that the doctrine of necessaries conflicted with the Separate Property Clause of the state constitution, contradicted the state’s public policy favoring marriage and violated the state’s contractual privity laws.
Those issues could come up again in the Supreme Court. Greensboro attorneys W. Eric Medlin, Adrienne S. Blocker and John F. Bloss, who represent the wife pro bono, said they planned to file a petition for discretionary review.
“In our opinion, it discourages marriage,” Blocker told North Carolina Lawyers Weekly. “If you look at the doctrine, it’s encouraged people to live together not as husband and wife legally but just to live together so that they will not be responsible for each other’s debts. That’s the exact opposite of what we in North Carolina promote as our public policy.
“We feel it’s definitely out of step with the modern age.”
In what was a second marriage for both, the wife and her late husband had separated their finances. That included the debts incurred by the husband while he was being treated for leukemia at the hospital.
He filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy, and his debts were discharged in February 2006.
After his death in June 2007, the hospital filed an action to recover the husband’s unpaid medical expenses from his wife.
The trial court, relying on the doctrine of necessaries, granted summary judgment in favor of the hospital in February 2008. The wife appealed.
Antiquated doctrine?
In her brief, the wife pointed out that the doctrine originated “in the days when women were considered chattel,” and it was considered the husband’s duty to manage his wife’s financial affairs and to provide for her necessary expenses.
“Today, however, that legal disability no longer exists and North Carolina women é are finding themselves financially liable for their husbands’ debts as a result of the very common law that was meant to protect them,” the wife’s brief said.
The Harris case and its progeny, which extended the doctrine to apply equally to both spouses, essentially provided a “debt-collection tool” to medical service creditors even though it could be used by virtually any creditor the wife argued.
In the wife’s view, the doctrine went against Article X, Sect. 4 of the state constitution, which is known as the Separate Property Clause.
Under the clause, a wife’s property acquired before marriage and any property she is entitled to during marriage remains her separate property “and shall not be liable for any debts, obligations or engagements of her husband” unless the General Assembly has passed a law otherwise.
Because it conflicted with that clause, the extension of the doctrine under Harris did not merit stare decisis treatment, the wife argued. The wife also claimed that the Supreme Court had not squarely addressed the impact of the Separate Property Clause in that case.
The hospital, on other hand, said the Harris decision had, in fact, referenced the constitutional clause and, regardless, the clause was not applicable to a case involving the doctrine of necessaries.
“This is not an action in rem to reach property; it is an action against [the wife] to enforce a debt for which she is directly liable under the doctrine of necessaries,” the hospital argued in its brief.
“Whether and to what extent her property may be liable for her own debt is not at issue in this case.”
The hospital also contended that the privity-of-contract argument was irrelevant in a case that had not been brought in contract, and it claimed the doctrine as extended in Harris was in tune with modern ideas of marital relationships.
“The Supreme Court’s holding was a thoughtful response calibrated to modernize the application of a long-standing, societally accepted doctrine to modern notions of general neutrality under the state and federal constitutions,” the hospital argued.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *