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Nursing Home Barred from Seeking Outstanding Bill Payment from Surviving Spouse

A creditor must seek payment of unpaid bills from a deceased spouse’s estate before attempting to collect payment from the surviving spouse, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that a southwest Ohio nursing home was required to file a claim with the estate of Robert Bell before it could pursue payment for his care from his widow, under Ohio’s “necessaries statute.”

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Judith L. French explained the necessaries statute, R.C. 3103.03, directs a spouse to care for the other if the spouse is unable to do so. Because the nursing home did not attempt to find out if Robert Bell, through his estate, was able to pay the bill, it could not pursue Cora Sue Bell for payment.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy, and Mary DeGenaro joined Justice French’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Patrick DeWine wrote that the plain language of the necessaries statute does not require that a creditor first pursue payment from the spouse’s estate. 

Justice Patrick F. Fischer also dissented without a written opinion.

Spouse Dies, Bill Arrives
In January 2014, Robert Bell entered into an admission agreement with Embassy Healthcare (doing business as Carlisle Manor Healthcare) that stated he was “responsible for all amounts due and owing the facility” for his stay at Carlisle Manor in Warren County. Cora Bell signed as the “responsible party.” However, nothing in the agreement made her “in any way personally liable for payment for services rendered” by the nursing home, the agreement stated

Robert Bell died in 2014. On Nov. 25, 2014, six months and three days after his death, Embassy sent a notice that it was seeking $1,678 from his estate. Included in the notice to Cora Bell was that she was not personally liable for the account. As of Nov. 22, no estate had been opened for Robert Bell, and Embassy did not seek to have an estate administrator appointed within six months of his death for the purpose of presenting a claim for unpaid services.

In June 2015, Embassy filed a complaint in Franklin Municipal Court in Warren County against Cora Bell seeking payment for her husband’s unpaid expenses, invoking the necessaries statute.

Bell asked the court for summary judgment, arguing that Embassy could not prove her husband was unable to pay the bill and that the nursing home failed to file a claim within the six-month statute of limitations in Ohio’s estate claims law, R.C. 2117.06. The magistrate hearing the case ruled in Bell’s favor, finding that Embassy failed to offer any evidence that Robert Bell or his estate could not pay for the services.

A Warren County Common Pleas Court judge also sided with Bell, but for different reasons than the magistrate. The trial court found Embassy failed to present the claim to Robert Bell’s estate within the six-month deadline.

Embassy appealed the decision to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals. A divided Twelfth District reversed the decision, finding that a claim can be pursued against a spouse independently from making a claim against the estate. Bell appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.

Court Examines Statutes
Justice French explained the Court had to examine the interplay between the estate claim and the necessaries statute. The opinion noted the necessaries law developed over time and has its origins in the common law necessaries doctrine. That doctrine required a husband to be liable for any necessaries, such as food, clothing, shelter, or medical services that was provided to his wife. It stemmed from the need to provide essential items and services to neglected wives.

The latest version of Ohio’s statute extended the responsibility to both spouses and requires “each married person” to support themselves, and if a married person is unable to do so, the spouse must assist in the support “as far as the spouse is able,” the opinion noted.

The majority opinion stated that Robert Bell retained primary responsibility for his unpaid bill and that Embassy must seek to collect payment from his income and assets. R.C. 3103.03(A) states that a married person is responsible for supporting oneself and only “if” the spouse is unable, must the other spouse assist in support.

“The nondebtor spouse becomes liable only if the debtor spouse does not have the assets to pay for his or her necessaries,” the opinion stated. “A creditor must therefore first seek satisfaction of its claim from the assets of the spouse who incurred the debt.”

The Court majority noted the agreement with Embassy and Bell’s husband stated he was responsible for the debt and as the responsible party she was not personally liable. The Court concluded that Embassy was required to first seek payment from the estate before pursuing Bell.

Wife Can Be Pursued if No Estate Assets
Embassy could prevail under the necessaries statute if it can show that Bell’s husband’s estate was not able to pay the bill, the opinion stated. The Court disagreed with Embassy’s argument that it could independently seek payment from both the estate and the spouse to cover the outstanding bill.

The opinion stated that the estate law requires all creditors, including claims arising out of contract, must be presented under the terms in R.C. 2117.06. The Court found Embassy’s claims arose from its contract with Robert Bell and his obligations became the obligations of his estate when he died.

The Court noted Embassy wrote to Bell informing her that it would seek payment from the estate. However, Embassy never sought to open an estate. The opinion indicated that if no estate has been opened, the creditor is required to seek the appointment of an estate administrator so that a claim can be filed within the six-month deadline. Embassy did not do that, the opinion stated.

“Because Embassy sat on its rights, its claims arising from Robert’s obligations under the admission agreement is forever barred ‘as to all parties’ including Cora,” the Court concluded.

The Court reversed the Twelfth District’s decision and affirmed the trial court decision in favor of Cora Bell.

Dissent Says Necessaries Can Be Pursued
In his dissent, Justice DeWine maintained the majority created a “broad new rule” subjecting those seeking payment for necessaries to estate-law requirements. He wrote the necessaries statute contains no such requirements.

Justice DeWine explained that under the necessaries statute, Embassy had to prove Robert Bell was unable to pay and that one way to show this would be by making a claim against his estate and finding there were insufficient funds to pay the bill. But, he wrote, the inability to pay could be shown in other ways. For example, the creditor might be able to compile records that establish the person died without assets and there would be no payment by filing a claim against the estate. 

The dissent noted it would be a “vain act” for a service provider to wait for an estate to be opened to a file a claim when the provider knows the person has no assets and also knows the surviving spouse is capable of paying. The dissent cautioned that the majority ruling would subject other creditor actions to the requirements of R.C. 2117.06, not only those that arise under the necessaries statute. The dissent would affirm the Twelfth District’s opinion.

2017-1031. Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-4912.

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