One Spouse’s Liability for Debts of the Other
Here is a common scenario. Spouse #1 goes to the doctor to have some body part fixed. Let’s say the bill to the Spouse for those services is $1,000. Twelve months later, Spouse #1 and Spouse #2 divorce. The divorce decree says that Spouse #1 will be responsible for that medical bill. However, Spouse #1 does not pay the bill. Since Spouse #1 is not working, the doctor (or their collection agent) contacts the now-former Spouse #2 and tell him/her that they are liable for the medical debt of the other spouse. Is the collector correct in that the former spouse #2 is personally liable for this debt?
Answer: Yes (at least in Washington); Spouse #2 is personally liable for the medical expenses incurred by Spouse #1.
Washington has a statute that establishes liability of one spouse for the ‘necessary expenses’ / “expenses of the family” incurred by the other spouse for the benefit of that spouse and their children, if any. That statute provides: “The expenses of the family and the education of the children, including stepchildren, are chargeable upon the property of both spouses or both domestic partners, or either of them, and they may be sued jointly or separately.” RCW 26.16.205 (emphasis added.) The complete statute is copied below.
Separate Liability of the Spouse
You will notice that the statute says that each spouse may be sued “jointly or separately”. That means that the spouse that was not treated has personal/separate liability for the medical expense incurred by the other spouse. That is the critical point of this article.
The Divorce Decree Does Not Prevent Liability
What about the divorce decree? It says (former) Spouse #1 is responsible for the debt. That is true. However, the doctor was not a party to the divorce and did not agree in the terms of the divorce decree to only go after former spouse #1 for payment. So, the doctor simply relies on RCW 26.16.205 – former spouse #2 is personally/separately liable for the medical debt incurred by former spouse #1.
Education and Other Expenses
If you carefully read the language of the statute above, you noticed that the non-purchasing spouse is also personally liable for the education costs of children and step-children and for ALL “expenses of the family” – not just medical expenses. “Expenses of the family” are limited to necessary expenses including but not necessarily limited to food and medical care.
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RCW 26.16.205 Liability for family support — Support obligation of stepparent
The expenses of the family and the education of the children, including stepchildren, are chargeable upon the property of both spouses or both domestic partners, or either of them, and they may be sued jointly or separately. When a petition for dissolution of marriage or state registered domestic partnership or a petition for legal separation is filed, the court may, upon motion of the stepparent, terminate the obligation to support the stepchildren. The obligation to support stepchildren shall cease upon the entry of a decree of dissolution, decree of legal separation, or death.