Most people would wish to pass away at home in their sleep, after a long full life and without suffering. The reality, of course, is that many people die after long illnesses, often involving a hospital or nursing home stay. When that happens, who pays the medical bills that are left behind?
Most bills, such as credit card debt in the deceased person's (decedent's) sole name are the responsibility of the probate estate. If there are not enough assets in the estate to cover all debts, the creditors may have to take a loss.
However, medical bills, which are often considerable, are treated differently in Ohio, and a surviving spouse may be responsible.
Responsibility for final medical debt is treated differently from state to state. Historically, most states observed a common law "necessaries doctrine" that made husbands liable to third parties who provided their wives with necessaries, including food, shelter, and health care. Ohio has codified this married persons' obligation of support, which makes wives as well as husbands liable for necessary goods and services provided to a spouse. The surviving spouse is liable for the debt to the extent that he or she is able to pay.
Considering that medical bills, especially for a serious illness, can easily run into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, this can be an almost insurmountable burden for spouses who are already burdened by grief.
Some people are forced to file bankruptcy to avoid being crushed under the weight of a deceased spouse's medical debt. Obviously, this is a last resort, to be avoided if at all possible. One option to protect your spouse is to create a revocable living trust. Under Ohio law, assets passing to your spouse or children through the trust are not subject to the claims of creditors, including medical creditors.
It's also advisable to consult with an experienced estate planning and elder law attorney to discuss ways to protect your spouse and heirs from medical debt after you die. Another important aspect of estate planning is Medicaid planning, which protects family assets from being "spent down" in order to qualify for Medicaid payments in the event long-term care is needed. Indeed, the cost of long-term care can dwarf bills for ordinary medical care. Planning for all contingencies, especially considering the likelihood that one will need end-of-life medical or nursing home care, just makes sense.
If you are reading this article when the time for planning ahead is past, it's still not too late to get legal guidance to protect assets in your deceased loved one's estate. Contact an experienced Ohio probate attorney as soon as possible for guidance in managing the estate's debts and assets.