The Responsibility for Medical Debt in a Divorce

By Teo Spengler

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With the high cost of medical treatment in this country, unexpected medical bills can ruin a family budget and diminish a savings account. Couples who divorce with outstanding medical bills must face the issue of who pays the debt when the marriage is over. The answer depends on the circumstances of the couple and the laws of the state in which they live.

Medical Bill Obligation

A marriage unites a couple "in sickness and in health," but the medical bills incurred during the spouses' time together can become a bone of contention in a divorce. In most states, medical bills for any member of the family are considered marital debt. This is true regardless of whether the medical treatment was elective or whether the other spouse approved of it at the time.

Community Property States

Some states have adopted community property rules for dividing property and debt of divorcing couples. In community property states, all income earned and debt incurred by either spouse during the marriage belongs equally to each of them. Income earned or debt incurred before the marriage by a spouse is her separate property or debt. In these states, each divorcing spouse is assigned to assets equal to one-half the total net value of the community estate. To accomplish this, each spouse might be assigned half the couples' assets and half the debts. Alternatively, one spouse might be given title to a large asset such as real property that cannot easily be split down the middle, but also assigned all the medical debt.

Equitable Division States

In other states, the courts apply the principals of equitable division in a divorce. Assets and debt are divided fairly between the couple, but not necessarily equally. Unless the divorcing spouses can agree on an equitable manner of separating property and debt between them, the court decides on the division. In an equitable division state, medical debt may be apportioned to either spouse as long as the overall division is fair and reasonable given the circumstances.

Liability for Medical Debts

Although the court can determine which of the spouses must assume a marital debt, the creditor is not always bound by the divorce decree. If the divorce judge assigns medical debt to a spouse who loses her job and cannot make payments, the creditor can often still take legal action against the other spouse.