Spousal Debts

Last year I wrote about community versus separate property, both assets and debts. For February (Valentine’s Day!) I thought it might be helpful to clarify what sort of spousal debts the non-debtor spouse is responsible for.

As I noted in my previous blog post, a spouse’s share of community property (assets of the marriage owned by both spouses equally) is liable for debts incurred by that spouse before or during marriage. However, the separate property of a married person is not liable for debts incurred by the other spouse before or during marriage, except for debts incurred for “the necessaries of life.” The necessaries of life include living and medical expenses which obviously may be significant.

So a spouse who inherits property, and manages to keep it titled as separate property, may still be forced to use that separate property asset to satisfy a nursing home claim or other medical expenses of his or her spouse incurred during the marriage. In other words, creditor recovery for medical expenses incurred during marriage is not limited to community property assets, or even the separate property of the ill spouse, but may extend to the separate property of the well spouse.

This can be contrary to a couple’s expectations. I have spoken with couples who thought that if they kept their separate property separate, they could preserve it from a spouse’s future medical expenses. The only way to cut off liability for a spouse’s regular life expenses-and this varies with the couple-is to divorce. That said, there are of course many ways to protect against claims, including obtaining adequate insurance. Once we marry, we are financially responsible for maintaining our spouse to the best of our ability.

Call me if you would like to discuss possible liability for a spouse’s debts.