The bill arrives at your home in the mail, innocent of your trauma. You separated from your wife because she went off with your best friend’s brother after 15 years of marriage and two children. You both parted ways, obtained a Separation Agreement and Property Settlement and a Consent Order on Custody for your children. You have lived in two separate homes for the past three (3) months and shared custody of your children.
You did not expect her to go into the hospital, require emergency surgery, stay in the ICU, and finally recover. Your ex had your children during that time and kept them until she recovered. She was no longer on your medical insurance, since you dropped her when the documents were signed and you found out about her affair.
And then you get the white envelope in the mail. It is addressed to you, your name, and your address. This just cannot be. It is a medical bill for your wife from her recent emergency stay in the hospital. This must be a mistake. Fixable, right? You call her and she tells you that she cannot pay the bill, has no intention of paying the bill, and you can just throw this bill out.
Now you are smarter than the average Joe, Pete, or Harry. You don’t listen to your ex. Although you are not divorced, you are still worried that the bill showed up in YOUR name. You leave a message for your divorce attorney and wait for a call back. Next logical step, you call the hospital. During the call this is the first time you start to feel a little queasy, because they tell you that you are legal responsible under the Doctrine of Necessities in North Carolina.
The doctrine of what? You grab out your Separation Agreement and Property Settlement. Absolutely no language exists covering a doctrine. What in the world is going on? Finally you get the call from the attorney.
Yes, the hospital has the right to recover your “wife’s” medical expenses from you if she fails to pay (or if she had happened to pass away from her medical issues) for any uninsured medical expenses. You ask your wonderful attorney, what about the agreement and court orders. The attorney asks you if you gave notice to the hospital of your separation in writing. Of course not you respond. I mean come on now, how were you supposed to know you had to do that?!?!? Not to mention that you became the sole parent all of a sudden when she went into the hospital.
What are your remedies? Well luckily for you, your separation agreement likely has indemnity clauses that will force your ex or her estate if she had passed away to indemnify you from her bills. That said, the hospital can still sue you for the bills and recover for the necessary expenses that your ex incurred.
So, if your ex gets sick or has a chronic illness, you a separated and not yet divorced, and you no longer cover your spouse on health insurance, well I highly recommend that you sent a letter to the medical treatment providers and the hospital medical records department with your spouse’s full name (and maiden name), date of birth, and last four (4) of their social security number and advise the hospital that you are separated and will not pay for their medical bills.
Yes, it is weird that North Carolina is still clinging to a doctrine from when a spouse was property and you had to pay for your horses if someone else cared for and fed them just like you had to pay for your spouse if someone else cared for, fed, or provided medical treatment for them. The doctrine is likely to stay in place for so long as many, many people do not have insurance or do not pay their uninsured medical expenses. Instead of thinking how unfair, ridiculous, or antiquated the doctrine of necessities is, go ahead and provide your required notice now.
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