Can a collection agency come after you for your children’s medical bills, even if you didn’t sign anything agreeing to be responsible for them? One of our readers asks:
My fiancé has children with his ex-wife. She will bring the children to the doctor or hospital and list him as being responsible. He pays for their individual medical plans and child support. Since he did not sign the hospital forms what do we do? We have called the hospital to request the forms proving he did not sign them and they refer us to call the collection company. We ask them for the forms and are told call the hospital. We have written letters to both asking them to be removed from his credit to no avail. What do you suggest we do now?
There are two issues here: one is the parent’s responsibility to the providers for their children’s medical bills and the other is the financial responsibilities between the spouses.
“Parents are on the hook,” when it comes to their kids’ medical bills, says collection attorney Lloyd D. Dix. Parents are required to take care of their children’s essential care — including medical care — and ultimately both parents can be held responsible for these costs, he says.
That may hold true even if the parent didn’t sign anything, says Chi Chi Wu, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. She explains that there are legal doctrines that come into play such as Quantum Meruit, which says that the provider is entitled to get paid for his or her services; or state “doctrines of necessaries” that hold parents responsible for essential bills such as medical care.
So as far as the provider is concerned, they may try to collect from both parents.
What About a Divorce Decree?
If the parents have agreed that one of them will pay the medical bills in a divorce decree, for example, then they can share that with the medical provider who may decide to just pursue the responsible spouse for the bills. But don’t count on it.
“The agreement between the parents is irrelevant when it comes to both parents being financially responsible to pay the providers for their children’s medical care,” warns Florida family law attorney Jane Windsor. “If you think about this from a public policy standpoint, medical care is really not a right that one parent can waive on behalf of their child with the other parent. This is a right that actually belongs to the child. So it won’t matter what the divorce decree says.”
Unfortunately, in this case the damage to our reader’s fiance’s credit reports has already been done. He might try asking the providers to pull the accounts back from collections so he can pay the providers directly and hopefully get them removed from his credit reports as a result. But that’s something of a long shot — especially with multiple accounts.
If he’s not successful, he may be able to settle them for less than the full balance owed. Paying or settling collection accounts won’t help his credit scores in the short term, but at least he doesn’t have to worry about being sued for the balances.
Keeping an Eye on Your Credit
He should also monitor his credit reports and scores to make sure he is alerted to any future collection accounts that show up so he can try to resolve them as quickly as possible. Some collectors won’t report medical bills if they are paid right away; though again, there’s no guarantee. (Credit.com’s Credit Report Card lets you monitor your credit score for changes — for free — to see if there are any problems with your credit.)
And, since the fiance is paying for the children’s insurance, he should make sure he reviews all the Explanations of Benefits (EOBs) from the insurance company to find out if there are other providers who have billed for services but haven’t been paid in full.
“If one (parent) does not pay, the medical care provider can hold them both responsible until the bill is paid in full…meaning the other ex-spouse will have to pay the bill if they don’t want it to affect their credit score,” says Winsdor.
Image: Hemera Technologies