The Doctrine of Necessaries in North Carolina: Can I Be Held Responsible for My Deceased Spouse’s Debts?

This is an important question for all married couples. Most people would say that if the debt of the deceased spouse was only in his or her name, then the surviving spouse would not be responsible. This is true, most of the time, such as with credit card debt or car loans.

However, there are important and potentially ruinous exceptions and these are the debts incurred for hospital and nursing home care. Under the Doctrine of Necessaries, the surviving spouse can be held personally liable for the hospital and nursing home bills of the deceased spouse. This doctrine is an old common law concept dating back to the laws of England centuries ago.  Today, it is upheld in North Carolina as spelled out in North Carolina General Statutes §131E-91.

What Expenses Is The Surviving Spouse Responsible For?

Basically, if the expenses incurred by the deceased spouse are deemed to be “necessary,” the living spouse would be on the hook. Today these “necessary” expenses are recognized as hospital/medical and nursing home costs. To hold the surviving spouse responsible for these costs, the following has to be proven: >

  1. That the services were provided to the spouse
  2. That the services were necessary for health and wellbeing
  3. That the surviving spouse and the deceased spouse were married, and not legally separated, at the time the services were provided; and
  4. That payment for these services has not been made.

Failing to understand and account for the Doctrine of Necessaries can derail even the most  carefully considered estate plan. While North Carolina law does provide some protection for the surviving spouse to prevent her from losing her home during her lifetime,  under this doctrine the liability for any such claim could attach to the surviving spouse’s estate at the time of her death. This would put those assets at risk and potentially prevent the assets from passing to the children or heirs as intended.

Fortunately, there are strategies that spouses can employ to minimize or avoid their exposure under this doctrine.  Trusts and deed planning can be successfully utilized to protect assets and assure they pass to the next generation free of these types of claims.

Let The Doyle Law Offices Help Plan Your Estate

Please call The Doyle Law Offices, P.A. today to discuss your estate planning needs. We have been helping clients in Cary, Raleigh, Wake Forest and Wake County for over 25 years and would be honored to assist you. Contact us by calling us at  (984) 235-1067 or fill out the form below.

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