Is a spouse responsible for medical bills?

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 Answer

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.