At some point, your circumstances may leave you wondering, “Am I responsible for my spouse’s debt?”
In Nebraska, you’re usually not responsible for debts that your spouse incurs, either during or before marriage. You especially don’t have to worry about debts they incurred before you married them.
But (and there is always a but), there’s one arcane legal theory where you will have to worry about your spouse’s debts. Even if everything else is covered, certain things may not be. Let’s take a look at what those things are.
What Is the “Doctrine of Necessities”?
In most states — including Nebraska — you may come up against the Doctrine of Necessities. This doctrine applies mostly to medical debts. Even if your spouse passes away, creditors will expect you to pay for any medical bills your spouse incurred before they passed. However, the necessities rule may also apply to basic necessities like rent, food, utilities, clothing, and any other items or services provided to help your spouse live a normal life. So if you have a spouse who runs up $1000 phone bill, you’re simply out of luck. In that case, the answer to the question of “Am I responsible for my spouse’s debts?” is “Yes, you are.”
Why Am I Responsible for My Spouse’s Debt, If It’s Only in the Name of My Spouse?
Unfortunately, the fact the debt is only in your spouse’s name doesn’t matter under the law. You’re responsible for the debts even if you didn’t sign for them. This is where the “in sickness and in health” part of most marital vowels receives the most strain. Worse, the rule stands even if you’re separated, and even if you never agree to or sanctioned a specific medical treatment. Because Nebraska is a state that recognizes common-law marriage, the Doctrine of Necessities applies even to common law spouses, especially if you’ve already taken on the responsibility of care for your spouse. The only way to avoid this is to have a court or the state legislature relieve you of the responsibility. There have actually been high-profile cases in which this has occurred.
The Doctrine of Necessities can, in some cases, add severe financial insults to injury, and it applies to all spouses, whether male or female. Some have argued that this places an undue burden upon the wives of men who died with high medical bills.
Is the Doctrine of Necessities Constitutional?
You might think this is an unfair law, and that the states at least would have stricken it down. In fact, we, both Alabama and Virginia have done so under the justification that the law is archaic and unfair to women, who tend to outlive their husbands by years. The Doctrine of Necessities can place an undue financial burden on these women for the rest of their natural lives.
While Nebraska still adheres to this concept, many jurists and lawmakers consider it old-fashioned, overly broad, and harmful. In time, some court will probably strike it down at the federal level, as has happened with many other such laws. However, that will require a challenge that goes all the way from local to state to federal courts.
What Happens If You Get a Divorce?
If you and spouse decide to get a divorce try not to leave the marriage with shared debt. Pay off any joint cards together. Or you can divide the debt and then transfer it to cards that are in each spouse’s name. Doing this will protect you if your ex-partner later decides to file bankruptcy or fails to pay what they owe. If you don’t have protections in place, creditors could go after you for the full debt amount.