JULY 8, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 25
Under the English common law (inherited, to a greater or lesser degree, by all the states of the U.S.), a husband was obligated to support his wife and children. Because women could not legally enter into enforceable contracts, a person who provided goods or services to a woman (or a minor child) on credit might not be able to enforce the collection of the debt. Even if a merchant sold (for instance) food to a married woman on credit, the merchant ran the risk that he might never collect on the debt.
This commercial problem gave rise to a principle of the English common law called “the doctrine of necessaries.” If a merchant provided goods or services to a married woman or minor child, he would be able to collect from the husband/father — if the sale was for “necessaries.” That usually meant food, shelter, clothing, medical care and the like.
Today, where it still exists, the doctrine of necessaries is applied in a gender-neutral way. A husband OR wife might be sued for the “necessaries” provided to his or her spouse. One key step before bringing the action, though, is that the spouse to whom the necessaries were provided must first be determined to be unable to pay for his or her own care.
That neatly sets up the scenario in a recent Indiana Court of Appeals case. Marjorie and Orson (not their real names) were married; Marjorie was admitted to a nursing home. Eventually Marjorie was made eligible for Medicaid, which paid for much of her nursing home care. By the time of her death, though, she had a $5,871.40 unpaid bill at the nursing home.
The nursing home tried to collect from Marjorie’s family. They wrote to her daughter Wilma, who had signed her into the home (and had, incidentally, foolishly signed the admission papers as “guarantor”). They wrote to Orson. They did not get paid. Then they sued Orson and Wilma. When Orson died before the litigation was resolved, the nursing home made a claim against Orson’s estate. The nursing home’s argument: under Indiana’s version of the doctrine of necessaries, he was responsible for his wife’s nursing home bill, and it should be collectible from his estate.
The trial judge denied the nursing home’s claim, reasoning that the home should first have brought legal action against Marjorie (while she was still alive) or her estate. Besides, ruled the trial judge, it was Wilma who had signed her mother into the nursing home, not Orson.
The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the denial of the claim. The three judges deciding the case first noted that the doctrine of necessaries might no longer be relevant in any event. If it is, though, the person making a claim under it must go through the steps required to pursue the claim. The nursing home should first have sued Marjorie or her estate; as a creditor, they could have opened an estate in Marjorie’s name to officially determine that she died without assets. Just saying that she had nothing, or even that she was a Medicaid patient and so must not have had anything, was not enough. Hickory Creek at Connersville v. Estate of Combs, June 27, 2013.
Let us assume for a moment that Marjorie’s estate was in fact insolvent. If the nursing home had initiated a probate proceeding, determined that she had no assets and then filed against Orson (and later his estate), they might have collected. But now they will be precluded from doing so; the time for presenting claims against Orson’s estate will have expired, and even if a new filing was made to establish Marjorie’s lack of assets there would be no opportunity to pursue the estate.
It is less clear (at least from the Court of Appeals decision) whether the nursing home could still pursue daughter Wilma. She did sign the admission document, and as “guarantor.” The resolution of the claim against her father’s estate does not necessarily resolve the nursing home’s lawsuit against Wilma. The lesson for others is clear: if you sign a nursing home admission agreement for another person (as, say, agent under a power of attorney, or conservator of the estate, or next of kin), make sure you cross out any reference to being a “guarantor” or “responsible party.”
But back to the doctrine of necessaries: does it still exist in Indiana? Yes, according to the Court of Appeals — though its vitality is doubtful.
What about Arizona? Remember that Arizona is a community property state, which means that the obligations of one spouse may not always be the responsibility of the other. Does this mean that the doctrine of necessaries does have vitality in Arizona? Probably not — though there are three reported Arizona Court of Appeals decisions about the doctrine. All three of them, however, involve failed attempts to apply the doctrine to care provided for minor children. In two of them, in fact, the doctrine was raised by out-of-state government agencies who provided welfare benefits to minors, and sought recovery against an Arizona father. Neither court allowed the doctrine of necessaries to apply — but mostly because the agencies have perfectly good rights to recovery under federal child-support rules.
Incidentally, the doctrine of necessaries is different from (even though similar to) so-called “filial support” or “filial responsibility” laws (we have provided information about filial support laws before). The concept of necessaries grew from a common law notion, and was originally applied exclusively to the provision of goods and services to married women and minor children. Filial support laws are state enactments that create a different liability — a child might be liable for an impoverished parent’s care under those newer laws, where they exist.