When separated from your spouse but not yet divorced, each party must understand their potential debt liability, particularly when it comes to medical bills. In New Jersey, when a couple lives separately and has no "viable marriage," they are usually no longer responsible for each other's medical debt. However, the question of whether they are in viable marriage can be a tricky one. If the court decides that you have a viable marriage, it could deem you responsible for your ex's debt. Here's what you need to know.
Legal Separation in New Jersey
Although many married New Jersey couples decide to live separately without divorcing, the state doesn't have an official legal separation status. Couples can use other options to formalize their separated status. Many draw up a Separation Agreement. In this legally enforceable contract, the parties agree on how to address issues such as child custody, child support, alimony, household bills and expenses, and joint assets and debt. Most agreements also make clear that each party will take responsibility for any new assets or debts starting from the date of the separation.
Other couples use a special New Jersey law to formalize their separated status. Under New Jersey statute 2A:34-3, a married couple may obtain a “divorce from bed and board," which ends the couple's shared financial responsibilities. From the date of the bed and board divorce, each party's acquisitions and debts are considered separate, although they are not formally divorced. This option is typically popular among couples who do not want to divorce for religious reasons.
Liability for Medical Debt During Separation
In New Jersey, a separated spouse may be responsible for the post-separation medical debt of their former spouse only under limited conditions. Further, the medical creditor is responsible for proving that the not-yet-divorced spouse shares responsibility for the debt. They can do so by showing the court that the following three elements are met:
- The creditor sought to collect the debt from the spouse who received the medical services,
- The spouse who received the services did not have the assets or income to pay the debt,
- The couple had a viable marriage.
New Jersey courts have found that a viable marriage is one where the marriage subsists, and the couple is a "financial unit.” If a couple is living in a separate home and has a separation agreement declaring the parties financially independent or has a bed-and-board divorce, the medical creditor would have difficulty proving that the marriage is viable. Even if a separate couple doesn't have a formal separation agreement, if they live separately and are financially independent of one another, proving that they have a viable marriage would be challenging. However, if the couple still cohabitates, albeit in separate parts of the home, and shows financial interdependence, a creditor might be able to successfully argue that they have a viable marriage.
Consult a Skilled New Jersey Family Attorney
If you are concerned about being held liable for your spouse's medical bills even though you are separated, you should speak with an experienced family lawyer. Contact the New Jersey Family Law Team at the Lento Law Firm. They can help you draft an enforceable Separation Agreement or defend you against a medical creditor's claims. Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or schedule an appointment online.
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