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By PIERCE KELLEY
ASK A LAWYER
S.S. of Morriston asks:
“My husband, who is in his mid-fifties, has been having some serious medical issues lately. We do not have medical insurance because we cannot afford it. Neither of us have medical insurance through an employer, either. We do not qualify for any public assistance programs. My question to you is this: If he gets the medical care and treatment he needs, but I don’t sign any place to make myself liable to pay the medical bills he will incur, am I liable anyway because he’s my husband?
You ask a very interesting, and very pertinent, question, given our aging population and the seemingly never-ending rise in medical costs. The short answer is NO, you are not, under Florida law, liable for the medical bills of your husband under the situation you describe but you’d better be careful or the medical providers might very well try to obtain the money owed them from you despite that.
Now, the longer answer to your question requires an historical reference. In ancient times, before women obtained the right to vote in the early 1900s, a husband was required to pay the medical bills of his wife, by law. It was called the Doctrine of Necessaries.
However, as women gained equality, and the laws changed accordingly, the question arose, since a man was obligated to pay the medical bills of his wife, shouldn’t the woman be responsible to pay the medical bills of the husband?
Florida’s Supreme Court ruled in 1995 in the case of Connor versus Southwest Regional Medical Center, Inc. (668 So. 2d 175) that it would be a violation of the Equal Protection clauses in both the State and Federal Constitutions to allow the man to be responsible for the medical bills of his wife but not require the woman to be responsible for the medical bills of her husband.
Interestingly, what the Court did in that case was strike down both scenarios, saying that neither spouse is responsible for the debts of the other spouse. The Court said that the State Legislature should decide what the law should be, not have the Courts make the law. As of this writing, the Florida Legislature has yet to do so, meaning that neither the husband nor the wife are responsible for the medical bills of the other spouse at this time. That could change, of course, in this legislative session, but it hasn’t, yet.
I should add that there is wide split across the country on this issue. Many states make the spouses liable for all such debts. Others exclude liability of one spouse for medical bills but hold the spouse liable for other bills. Still others do as Florida has done, by not making either spouse liable for the medical bills of the other spouse. So those “out-of-state” readers of this column should check their own statutes and court rulings to get a correct answer to this question.
Again, I caution you, as indicated in the first paragraph above, the medical provider could still get payment from you or your assets by obtaining a judgment against your husband for the bills, if he doesn’t pay them, and then executing on joint assets, or assets owned jointly by the husband and the wife, such as a checking account with both names on it. Also, when your husband dies, as all of us will someday, the debt would have to be paid from your husband’s estate, usually before any heirs, such as yourself, could collect any money from the estate.
That said, with help from a skilled probate lawyer or a lawyer familiar with consumer laws, you (the wife) can avoid that result, if you are careful and plan accordingly. So be careful and seek help from an attorney, if necessary, to plan accordingly.
I hope I have answered your question, S.S., and I hope that your husband gets the medical care and treatment he needs without enormous financial loss to him, or to you. Good luck.
Any readers with specific legal questions for this “Ask a Lawyer” column are invited to submit those questions to the Editor of this newspaper who will pass it along to the attorney. If you need assistance with a consumer matter, such as an unfair and deceptive collection practice, or garnishment of wages, a mortgage foreclosure or other such things, and you cannot afford an attorney, call the Legal Services office closest to you, which provides free legal assistance to qualified individuals, or call the Florida Bar Referral service at 1-800-342-8011. I wish you good luck in obtaining access to our legal system, no matter what your income and asset level might be.
The foregoing was written by attorney Pierce Kelley, who is a member of the Florida Bar Association. The contents reflect his personal opinions and beliefs.