Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Watch out for the Doctrine of Necessaries

Sam and Audrey married each other in 1996, it was a second marriage for both of them. After they'd been married for 8 years, Sam was diagnosed with cancer and he received treatment for the disease at a local hospital. Sam had health insurance which paid for most, but not all of his medical bills. Sam got behind on paying his personal debts, including the hospital bill. Eventually, Sam, not with Audrey,filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection from his creditors. At the time of the bankruptcy filing, over half of Sam’s unsecured debt was for medical bills associated with his cancer treatment. Sam’s debts were discharged in early 2006. Sam died in the spring of 2007. Following Sam’s death, the hospital sued Audrey to recover Sam’s unpaid medical expenses and the hospital won. See, Moses Cone Memorial Hospital Operating Corp. v. Hawley , an opinion of the North Carolina Court of Appeals which was filed on February 17, 2009.

I imagine that you might find the result described above to be unfair and shocking. How can Audrey be responsible for debts for which Sam, himself, had he lived, would not have been liable? The answer to that question is something called the doctrine of necessaries.

The necessaries doctrine comes from the English common law duty of a husband to provide for the necessary expenses of his wife and child. In modern day North Carolina, the doctrine imposes liability on a gender-neutral basis. What this means is that one spouse is personally liable for the necessary expenses incurred by his/her spouse.

According to the noted North Carolina legal scholar, Suzanne Reynolds, courts in other states have found necessaries to include such things as, medical care, funeral expenses, food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. Here in North Carolina, the "necessary" at issue in most appellate cases involves medical services.

To prevail under the theory of the doctrine of necessaries: the provider of the necessary services or goods must show: that (1) services or goods were provided to the spouse; (2) the services or goods were necessary for the health and well-being of the receiving spouse; (3) the person against whom the action is brought was married to the person to whom the necessary services or goods were provided at the time such services were provided; and (4) the payment for the necessaries has not been made.

There is an exception to the doctrine of necessities for separated spouses. However, merely being separated is not enough. In order for a spouse to take advantage of the separation exception, he/she must show that the provider of the necessary services or goods, e.g. the hospital, had actual notice of the parties’ separation at the time the services were rendered or the goods supplied.

If we continue to see an increase in the State's unemployment rates, I wonder if we will also see more creditors using the doctrine of necessaries as a way to recover unpaid debts.


E said...

I have a collection agency trying to collect on a bill from me under this doctrine. However at the time of service, not only were he and I legally separated (and me living in a different state), but also the bill to which they're trying to pin on me is the ambulance bill that took him to the hospital *after* he was deceased. He passed before they had even gotten there. Since the services were not necessary for his health and well-being, does this agency have a leg to stand on?

Martha New Milam said...

Dear E: If the EMS folks did not have actual notice that you and your now late husband were separated, it is possible they have a valid claim. My best advice is for you to retain a lawyer to assist you.

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