Collecting a debt from someone other than the debtor can be tricky, but certain circumstances do allow for it. The law has long recognized the responsibility spouses may have for each other’s debts, going all the way back to English common law.
The Doctrine of Necessaries states that spouses are liable for each other’s debts if that debt covered necessities like food, clothing, medical care, housing and education for children. Of course, this law originally applied mainly to a husband’s obligation to provide for his wife and children. Today, it can apply to either spouse. Creditors often use it to collect medical debt. Though many states have adopted some form of the Doctrine of Necessaries, other states have done away with this doctrine.
Does this apply in California?
California does have an expanded notion of the Doctrine of Necessaries. Under California law, the “community estate” can be used for debts of either spouse during the marriage. That means any assets earned or purchased during the marriage is marital property and fair game for marital debt collection, but a spouse’s separate property is not.
The Doctrine of Necessaries focuses more on personal liability. California law also recognizes that each spouse is personally liable for the other spouse’s debts regarding necessities, and debt collectors can target their separate property for payments if marital property is unavailable.
Know the law in your state
For a successful action based on this doctrine, most courts will require a creditor to show:
- The spouse received the goods or services
- The spouses were married at the time of the purchase or services, and not legally separated
- The creditor never received payment for the goods or services
- The goods or services fall under the state’s definition of being necessary for the health or well-being of the spouse
Many laws regarding debt collection are state-specific. Be sure you understand how the law applies in your state. The best way to do that is to consult a knowledgeable collections lawyer.