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Are You Responsible for Your Spouse’s Debts?
Are you responsible for your spouse’s debts? It depends. Generally, you are not responsible for any debts your spouse brings into the marriage.
As for debts incurred during the marriage, it depends on the state you live in and the type of debt. In an equitable division state such as South Carolina, both spouses are responsible for debt taken on jointly and for debt that benefits the marriage. In South Carolina and many other states, you would not be liable for debts incurred only by your spouse that don’t benefit the marriage.
There’s one important exception – the doctrine of necessaries.
The Doctrine of Necessaries in South Carolina
The doctrine of necessaries (also called the necessaries doctrine or sometimes the doctrine of necessities) comes from common law and is still valid in many states today, including South Carolina. It makes an individual liable for a spouse’s debts if the debts are related to medical care, food, shelter, or other “necessaries” for life. It also applies to parents who are liable for their minor children’s debts including medical bills.
The necessaries doctrine has been affirmed a number of times in South Carolina courts, including in the case Richland Memorial Hospital v Burton (1984) in the Supreme Court of South Carolina (here). Richland Memorial Hospital brought a collection action against Cary Burton, the husband of a deceased patient of the hospital, for debts incurred by his wife during her medical care. The trial court found Burton liable for the debts, and the SC Supreme Court ultimately affirmed.
This case is important because it brought equality to a common law that originally applied only to men and not to women.
Historical Inequality in the Doctrine of Necessaries
Originally, only husbands had the legal duty to support their wives and take on their debt. The necessaries doctrine comes from common law during a time when women did not have all the rights they do today, including property rights and the right to enter into contracts. A husband had a duty to support his wife, even taking on the debts she incurred before the marriage, and he also had the authority to use her property to satisfy her debts. Common law did not require a woman to take on her husband’s debts, because it didn’t make sense at the time.
Things began to change in the mid-1800s when Married Women’s Property Acts and similar acts were passed, state by state, across the country, giving women more legal authority and property rights. South Carolina later enacted Code 20-5-60 which relieved husbands of liability for their wives’ debts, except for her necessary support: “A husband shall not be liable for the debts his wife contracted prior to or after their marriage, except for her necessary support and that of their minor children residing with her.”
Still, while women gained more rights, the necessaries doctrine remained unchanged in many places for a long time, including South Carolina.
An Old Common Law in Modern Times
In Richland Memorial Hospital v Burton, Burton argued that the necessaries doctrine and SC Code Section 20-5-60 were unconstitutional because they violated the equal protection clauses of the South Carolina Constitution and the United States Constitution. The appellant and respondent conceded that the necessaries doctrine denied equal protection because it imposed an obligation on husbands it did not impose on wives. The court agreed.
But the court also agreed with Richland Hospital that the doctrine of necessaries remains a viable common law doctrine. The court determined that both husbands and wives were subject to the necessaries doctrine. From the court’s opinion: “We accordingly hold that the necessaries doctrine allows third parties providing necessaries to a husband or wife to bring an action against the individual’s spouse.”
In short, yes, in South Carolina you can be responsible for necessaries-related debts your spouse alone incurs – whether you’re a husband or a wife.
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