By Joseph E. Balmer   |   February 16th, 2019

Ohio Supreme Court Rules That A Creditor Must Look At The Deceased Spouse’s Estate Before Pursuing A Surviving Spouse For Debt Payment

surviving spouse creditor supreme courtIn a somewhat surprising decision, the Ohio Supreme Court on December 12, 2018, in Embassy Healthcare v. Bell provided some relief to surviving spouses for the debts of their deceased spouses under certain situations.  Now, a creditor must look to the deceased spouse’s estate first before pursuing the surviving spouse for payment.

To understand the argument on both sides, one must first look to the existing statutory law.  Under current existing Ohio statutory law, any creditor looking to be paid by a debtor’s estate must present a claim to the estate of the decedent within 6 months of the decedent’s death or the claim is banned forever.  However, there is also the “necessaries statute” that states every spouse is directly responsible to care for his or her spouse if they are unable to do so.  This has always been interpreted to mean that the surviving spouse is directly responsible for the funeral bill or last medical bills of the deceased spouse. Under R.C. 3103.03, the necessaries statute, the debtor spouse has primary liability for his/her own debts. The necessaries statute does not impose joint liability on a married person for the debts of his/her spouse.

Ohio Supreme Court Steps In. Relief For Surviving Spouse In Creditor Dispute

In the case before the Supreme Court, the creditor nursing home did not present its claim to the estate within 6 months from the date of death as required by law, but then went directly to the surviving spouse to get paid.  The nursing home argued to the Supreme Court that the plain language of the “necessaries statute” does not require that the creditor first pursue payment against the deceased spouse’s estate before pursuing payment against the surviving spouse.

The surviving spouse argued that the “necessaries statute” only requires a spouse to care for the other spouse if they are unable to do so, and the nursing home did not attempt to find out if the deceased spouse, through his estate, could pay for his own care first.  The Supreme Court held that because the nursing home did not attempt to find out if the deceased spouse, through his estate, could pay for his own care first, they could not then go after the surviving spouse for payment of the debt.

Much support was provided in this case by advocate organizations for the elderly and the poor.  They emphasized the great financial difficulty a death can have on a widow and that continued efforts need to be made to aid spouses of sick or deceased partners.  The holding then is that, a creditor who fails to timely present its claim to the decedent’s estate first is barred from later bringing the claim against the spouse.

Click here to read the decision.

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Joseph E. BalmerAbout The Author: Joseph E. Balmer
Joseph Balmer manages the Probate, Trust and Estate Administration department at Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues, and has been certified by the Ohio State Bar Association as a specialist in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law since 2006.

The Ohio Supreme Court Gives a Win to Surviving Spouses Over Creditors
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