In most instances under the law, debt is incurred in the capacity of the person(s) involved in the transaction only. Yet, there are several exceptions to this rule. State contract and family law apply to determine if one spouse may be liable for the debt of the other spouse. Tennessee law has provisions for garnishment, to levy bank accounts, to foreclose on property, and place a lien in certain circumstances.1 Additionally, if you sign a contract as a grantor for the medical care of a friend or family member and agree to contractual provisions that you will pay in the event that they fail to do so, you may be legally bound by that contract.
One of these lesser known exceptions to debt being incurred in an individual capacity only is the obligation to pay the medical bills of a spouse. Tennessee courts have directly recognized the common-law doctrine of necessaries to require a spouse to pay the medical debt of the other spouse in certain circumstances since at least 1997.2 In Outpatient Diagnostic Center v. Christian, a medical care provider attempted to hold a husband liable for medical services provided to his wife.3 The husband argued that he should not be liable for his wife’s debt because she was not acting as his agent in the transaction and he did not ratify her debt. The court reasoned that a spouse’s duty to pay for necessary medical expenses for the other spouse is a straightforward application of the common-law imposed duty on a husband to furnish support for his wife.4 Additionally, the Tennessee legislature appeared to ratify this doctrine in 1974 in T.C.A. § 47-18-805 “Liability of spouse.”5 The court also reasoned that other states confronting similar disputes have recognized the common-law necessaries doctrine as creating this obligation.6
The Court defined the limits of the doctrine: “[A] provider of medical services can make out a prima facie claim for recovery under the necessaries doctrine by proving that
(1) it provided medical services to the receiving spouse,
(2) the medical services were necessary for the receiving spouse’s health and well-being,
(3) the person from whom recovery is sought was married to the receiving spouse when the services were provided, and
(4) payment for the services has not been made.”7
Thus, if you were married to your spouse at the time your spouse incurred medical bills, your spouse was provided medical services, the medical services were necessary, and your spouse never paid the debt, you may be considered liable under the common law necessaries doctrine.8 Objectively, this doctrine seems quite unfair. A spouse may legitimately have no notice that their spouse has sought medical treatment and incurred medical debt and may be quite surprised to be sued over the debt. Yet many medical debt holders may also choose to forgive the debts in such cases that seem exceptionally unfair even if not required to do so by law. As a public policy matter, Tennessee law should encourage people to seek treatment for serious medical conditions. This antiquated application of common-law could easily be overridden by statute if the Tennessee legislature desired to do so. Perhaps now is a good time for that action.
1 See https://www.bills.com/debt/tennessee-collection-laws; TCA 26-2-107; TCA 26-2-103; TCA 35-5-101
2 Outpatient Diagnostic Ctr. v. Christian, No. 01A01-9510-CV-00467, 1997 Tenn. App. LEXIS 305, at *7 (Ct. App. Apr. 30, 1997).
3 Id. at 1.
4 Id. at 7 (citing Simpson v. Drake, 150 Tenn. 84, 86, 262 S.W. 41, 41 (1924)).
5 T.C.A. § 47-18-805 states: “Where the applicant for credit is married, the spouse of the applicant shall not be liable, other than to the extent common law liability is imposed for furnishing necessaries, for any debts, charges, or accounts where the spouse has not signed the application for credit.”
6 Christian, *8 (citing cases from New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia in support).
7 Id. at 7.
8 See Id.