Our last case law discussion comes to us from the Ohio Supreme Court in Embassy Healthcare v. Bell. This case provides a great illustration of facts that many may one day encounter: a nursing home sought payment from a surviving spouse of a decedent spouse’s outstanding bill. But where this case is particularly interesting is the method by which the nursing home sought payment.

Husband was admitted to Embassy Healthcare nursing home. Wife signed the admission agreement as a “responsible party.” The agreement contained a clause explicitly stating that the responsible party is not personally liable for the resident’s debts. Husband dies, and 6 months and 3 days later, nursing home sent a letter to Wife, as fiduciary, indicating they were asserting a claim for an unpaid balance of $1,678 (but again reiterated they were not seeking payment from Wife, only the estate of Husband). No estate was ever opened for Husband. It is critically important that the nursing home sent a letter to Wife 6 months and 3 days later, because Ohio law requires creditors to assert all claims against a decedent within 6 months, or else the claim is forever barred.

Roughly 7 months after their first letter, nursing home sues Wife individually for the unpaid balance. Nursing home argued that an obscure provision in Ohio law required Wife to pay the outstanding balance. The provision is called the “necessaries doctrine” which essentially requires a married individual to provide necessary care for their spouse when their spouse cannot care for himself/herself. But additionally, the law dictates that if a third party provides the care a spouse is required to provide, the third party can receive reimbursement from the spouse that should be providing care. Thus, the nursing home argued they provided necessary care to Husband that Wife was obligated to provide, and as a result Wife must reimburse nursing home.

The case wound its way through the Ohio courts, and the Ohio Supreme Court held that before attempting to seek reimbursement from the spouse, nursing home was required to present a claim against the Husband’s estate and demonstrate Husband could not pay for the care before liability for the balance could shift to Wife. However, because nursing home failed to timely present the claim within 6 months of the date of death, their claim was barred against both the estate and the spouse.

The Ohio Supreme Court is thus establishing a bright line rule: creditors must present a claim to the estate of the decedent spouse before a creditor can, in any way, attempt to collect from the surviving spouse under the doctrine of necessaries. Accordingly, executors, spouses, and attorneys should all be mindful of both the 6 month claims window and the requirement that a creditor present a claim first before they can sue a spouse individually. But perhaps most importantly, this case illustrates the creative methods creditors will use to seek payment of their claims.