By Ann H. Larkin

After the death of a spouse, the surviving spouse will inevitably receive bills from hospitals and rehabilitation facilities. Typically, these bills are sent in the name of the deceased spouse. Are you, as the surviving spouse, obligated to pay them?

The general rule in Virginia is that you are not responsible for your spouse’s personal debts. Furthermore, assets owned by a surviving spouse due to a right of survivorship are not subject to claims by creditors for debts owed by the deceased spouse. However, there are several exceptions to this rule in the case of medical bills.

First, if a spouse signs a contract agreeing to pay for medical treatment provided to his or her spouse – often called a personal guaranty – the surviving spouse is responsible for paying the medical bills.

Second, a spouse is personally responsible for the payment of emergency medical care provided to his or her spouse. “Emergency” medical care includes care that is provided during the initial emergency admission in order to preserve the patient’s life or health. To the extent the bills you receive are for emergency services provided by hospitals, you are personally responsible for paying them.

Third, Virginia recognizes the “doctrine of necessaries,” which provides that, even if a spouse does not agree in writing to pay his or her spouse’s medical bills, an implied contract is created requiring a spouse to pay for goods and services deemed “necessary” for the other. Medical services provided by a hospital are considered “necessaries” and a surviving spouse can therefore be required to pay them.

However, it is not clear whether hospice care is covered by the doctrine of necessaries. If your spouse was treated by physicians and nurses and received medication or other palliative care during his time at a rehabilitation facility, a strong argument can be made that the treatment was medically necessary and that the surviving spouse is therefore personally responsible for paying for these services.

If you refuse to pay your spouse’s bills, hospitals and rehabilitation facilities may seek a judgment against you personally in court to recover their fees for both emergency and non-emergency medical services provided to your spouse. It should be noted that, if a creditor obtains a judgment against a surviving spouse for payment of the deceased spouse’s expenses based on the doctrine of necessaries, the creditor cannot obtain a lien against a residence that was owned by the spouses as tenants by the entirety. Therefore, if you refuse to pay the non-emergency bills and the medical provider obtains a judgment against you, they may seek to attach your bank accounts, but they cannot file a lien against your house.

Whether or not you could be responsible for paying your spouse’s medical debts is heavily dependent on the particular facts surrounding your spouse’s care. While this article provides a general explanation of the law, it is always recommended that you consult with an experienced attorney for specific legal advice.