Is a spouse responsible for medical bills?

8 answers | Last updated: May 05, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

What's the spousal responsibility for medical bills and final medical expenses? My father died in February 2009 of a heart attack. He was in the hospital for a week until his passing. He is now being mailed bills for some medical procedures while he was in the hospital which weren't covered by his insurance. I am concerned for my mother since now she is a widow with no income other than Supplemental Security Income (SSI). She has medical bills herself and has been paying for COBRA insurance, which is pretty expensive at about $500 a month, in order for her to continue with her medical issues. My mother has been a house wife for over forty years, she has never been employed before. My father was their sole income provider. She has a little money saved up after paying for his funeral arrangements and paid all their property taxes one month before my father passed. Luckily, they owned the house we grew up in so she isn't having to pay rent/ mortgage. She is willing to make arrangements with the bill collectors but I asked her to hold off. She will only have her SSI to depend on. I was hoping to find some information that may help us.

I strongly feel she should send a copy of my father's death certificate and explain she has no money to pay his medical expenses. Could someone please help me with some advise.

Expert Answers

Barbara Repa, a senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

Your instincts and advice to your mother to proceed slowly and cautiously in paying your father’s final medical bills were sound.
A recent study revealed the scary statistic that about 90% of hospital bills contain errors, mostly in the hospital's favor. But may people pay the bills without question or documentation, especially since most medical providers are quite aggressive about coming after those they target to pay.

But even they can’t wring money where there’s none to be had. And the law protects Social Security benefits from being taken to cover this medical debt.

These days, it is not uncommon for people to need time and help in paying medical bills. Some hospitals have their own programs in place that provide this help, or can put you in contact with outside programs that can help pay the bills. These programs may significantly lower the total amount of a hospital bill. Also, some hospitals offer payment plans, which can stretch out payment of hospital bills over time at interest rates well below market. To find out more about these possibilities, contact the hospital’s patient representative or ombudsman.

Community Answers

Lady333333 answered...

I wrote all the doctors and the hospital. I explained that my Mom had no money and to please forgive the bills. To my surprise they all did. Mom never paid a dime for my step fathers bills.....It doesn't hurt to try....I was shocked at the response.

Jade1961 answered...

More often than not Hospitals will forgive the debts of a person who is deceased. I have helped many patients go through the grieving process inclusive of helping them to write the appropriate letters, which are not always needed as a phone call to the hospitals Social worker will usually do the trick. As I said, in MOST cases the debt is forgiven. Hospitals, predominantly the Doctors on the board of the hospitals took a Hippocratic Oath in that oath they promise to care for the sick regardless of ability to pay. Therefore, hospitals tend to be forgiving in cases of deceased debtors they realize that the grief alone that is being faced by the spouse/family is enough to handle and in today's medicine hospitals are well funded in most area's of the USA. So give a call the worst they will say is no. We have all heard that word in our lives & it hasn't killed anyone. More likely than not though they will forgive the debt. I hope this gives you some comfort/help. God be with you & yours.

Ljd answered...


My husband had a heart attack first of February, was in the hospital for a month, we have no insurance and we have no money, but the bills are pilling up, could you please tell me what you said in the letters to the doctors so I may do the same, I'm so lost as to what to do. Thank you in advance, Ljd

Chantixman answered...

In June 2009 I spent 14 days in ICU and a Month in the Hospital. Since I am on Title II SSDI Medicare Parts A & B, my Bill was $164,988.45. After Informing them I get $2k from SSDI and My Rent is $1600 a month I could not Pay them. They Forgave all of the Debt except for $800 (Materials from Outside Vendors.) I have found Most Hospitals will forgive the debt of the Deceased. St Joseph's In Memphis took care of my Mom for 116 Days before she passed away.. Finest medical Treatment Money could buy.. They Forgave over $450,000.00.

Soccerbaby18 answered...

I have a similar situation my daddy went into the hospital august 29th and was there until he passed away September 16th and mom had already a few weeks before daddy went into the hospital been getting phone calls from a law firm (collections for medical bills) because daddy was unemployed so they said she had to pay it they even went as far as to take daddy's name off the account and add hers when it wasn't her bill anyways after daddy passed away instead of getting bills from the hospital and doctors they sent them straight to the collection company didn't even give mom a chance to ask for help nothing and the collection company doesn't work well with you. a friend of mine has a payment she called them told them she couldn't pay them right now it was pay rent and get food for her kids or pay them so they took her to court. So is my mom responsible for my daddy's bills we live in Oklahoma if that helps. Or should we seek legal help?

Tablcr answered...

I'm a widowed mother of 2 my husband left me a gift of medical debts that are on my credit thanks to community property. Does anyone know if I can get th at off my credit?

Denmic20 answered...

Most hospitals receive Federal funds and must provide a charity program. Fill out the paper work and most of your bill can be covered by Federal funds. If you have insurance, Federal funds can still cover your portion. There is usually an amount set aside for those who qualify and if it is late in the year they may have reached the limit already. Pay a minimum payment each month and refile at the first of the year.