Am I responsible for my spouse's medical debt?
Navigating medical expenses in a marriage can be confusing. You support each other through sickness and health, but are you legally accountable for costs you didn't approve?
This common dilemma leaves many spouses wondering: Am I responsible for my spouse's medical debt?
The answer depends on where you live, your assets, and who authorized treatment. Naturally, you feel compelled to protect your loved one, but you must also safeguard your finances.
When spouses share debts
In most cases, marriage operates as an emotional and financial partnership.
You share bank accounts and properties and make healthcare decisions together. So, not surprisingly, many assume spousal medical debt falls under the "ours" category.
But in the eyes of the law and lenders, your spouse's medical treatment and billing are their sole responsibility—unless you agree to it.
So, if you have been asking yourself, "Am I responsible for my spouse's medical debt?" here are some things to be aware of before making any assumptions.
You are not automatically responsible for the medical care your husband or wife receives. For you to be accountable for their medical debt, one of the following would need to happen:
- You explicitly asked for your spouse to get specific medical care
- You gave consent ahead of time to pay for their treatment
- You signed forms, taking on responsibility for their medical costs
This means that, without permission, doctors and hospitals cannot pass treatment costs on to the patient's spouse. Marriages make two individuals one family, but not one legal entity.
Community property wrinkle
However, some states follow "community property" rather than "common law" marital asset rules.
Under community property, couples share equal ownership of most property and debts accrued during the marriage. In some states, medical bills could be considered shared debts.
The nine community property states are:
- New Mexico
In these states, you may share liability for any medical debt your spouse takes on while you're together. It depends on specific state statutes and the separation of your finances.
Although not as common, community property laws add a layer of complexity and liability to the equation. Consult an attorney licensed in your state for guidance about your responsibilities.
Other exceptions when spouses can be responsible for medical debt
Beyond community property states, a few other scenarios can create exceptions and financial risk:
Joint medical accounts
Married couples often receive healthcare together under joint accounts. You share insurance, have family plans at the same doctor's office, etc.
If you're jointly listed on the accounts in the provider's system, you are equally responsible for costs, even if it was your spouse who received the care.
The forms you’re required to sign to open joint billing accounts approve paying all covered expenses. So, review paperwork closely to avoid agreeing to unwanted liability.
Co-signed medical loans and payment plans
Many medical providers let patients finance costs through medical credit cards, personal loans, or payment plans to make it possible to afford expensive treatments.
The rules on co-signing debt apply here.
If your spouse includes you as a co-signer on medical credit, you are legally obligated to repay, regardless of who got the care.
So, only accept requests to co-sign hospital credit cards or other medical financing if you fully understand the terms and are willing to accept responsibility for the debt.
In most states, your authorization is required for non-emergency procedures and treatments for a spouse. Doctors secure this through written consent forms.
If you sign one of these forms agreeing to pay, the provider can hold you jointly accountable for costs not covered by insurance.
Emergency care consent
Your signature is not required for emergency care, even if your spouse is incapacitated. The law assumes spouses consent to lifesaving measures in a crisis, but, follow-up treatments and hospital stays beyond stabilizing emergency care often need express permission.
While you're typically not responsible for a living spouse's medical debt, collection agencies can pursue payment from their estate after death. This occurs during probate if the deceased's assets are insufficient to cover debts.
Agencies cannot, however, force the surviving spouse to pay from their own income or assets. Responsibility ends with the deceased.
Steps to avoid unwanted debt
Managing marital medical costs starts with proactive planning and prevention.
- Discuss finances openly - Share income, assets, debts, and credit information to make informed decisions.
- Review insurance policies - Understand coverage details so there are no surprises about uninsured costs.
- Split individual and joint accounts - When practical, keep your healthcare accounts separate from your spouse's to contain costs. Many providers let married couples do this.
- Communicate with providers - Call billing departments to remove your name if you see charges for care you didn't receive. If you have separate insurance coverage, request separate billing.
- Consult attorneys - Community property laws vary, so seek guidance to understand debts you could be responsible for in your state.
What to do if you begin receiving collection calls
If, despite your best efforts, you find yourself being contacted by collectors demanding payment for your spouse’s medical care, don’t panic, you have options.
Here are some steps to follow if you find yourself receiving calls from debt collectors regarding your spouse's debts:
- Verify the debt. Request a detailed, written statement of the services, dates, and exact amounts owed. Accounts can contain errors or be attributed to the wrong person.
- Determine consent: Ask for copies of any forms or authorizations with your signature agreeing to pay. If you didn’t sign, they cannot force you to pay.
- Send a dispute letter. Formally contest inaccurate debts in writing and request they only contact your spouse.
- Consult attorneys. Seek legal guidance on your rights and responsibilities for marital medical debt under the laws in your state. They can also review the documentation for errors.
- Negotiate settlements. If some responsibility does lie with you, negotiate smaller payoff amounts or payment plans. Get any offers in writing before paying.
- Prioritize bills: If you cannot pay all joint debts, work with creditors to settle essential utilities, housing, and basic needs first.
While collections calls create anxiety, remember that debt collectors ultimately want to get paid, whether it comes from you or from your spouse. Don't let them intimidate you into paying debts that aren't rightfully yours.
You are generally not liable for medical treatment you didn't authorize or sign for. However, community property laws can create exceptions in some states that make spouses share debt.
Take preventive steps such as openly discussing finances, maintaining separate accounts when possible, and consulting lawyers in community property states.