Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 572-24 is Hawaii's spousal liability statute and states that a spouse is liable for the debts incurred by the other spouse for all necessaries for themselves, one another or their family during marriage.
The Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals affirmed the plain reading of Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 572-24 in Queen's Medical Center v. Kagawa. The ICA stated that "the statute is a legal command that each spouse 'shall be bound to maintain, provide for, and support' the other spouse and 'shall be liable for all debts contracted by one another for necessaries...during marriage'". As a matter of public policy, promoting a definite and clear spousal duty, "best informs husbands and wives of the extent of their obligations...and encourage providers to extend necessaries to needy spouses."
In Kagawa, the husband and wife had separated, but not legally divorced. The husband incurred medical expenses related to a medical emergency and ultimately died. The ICA held that the medical services provided by Queen's Medical Center were necessaries for which he was indebted. Since husband and wife were still legally married at the time the debt was incurred, the wife became responsible for the medical debt upon the husband's passing.
In the context of probate, the surviving spouse is generally not liable for the individual debts of the deceased spouse. However, an exception exists for debts incurred that fall under the category of necessaries. The ICA has made it clear that the medical debt of the deceased spouse is considered a "necessary" and, therefore, is the responsibility of the surviving spouse.
As an aside, the ICA noted that relieving support obligations under Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 572-24 based on the wrongful conduct of a spouse would contradict Hawaii's partnership approach to family law. Therefore, fault or misconduct (such as infidelity) would not eliminate a spouse's obligation of support under Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 572-24.
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Samuel K.L. Suen is an attorney based in Honolulu, Hawaii specializing in estate planning, probate, conservatorship and guardianship matters.
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