Oral Argument Preview: Collecting a Debt for a Decedent’s Necessaries Against a Surviving Spouse: Embassy Healthcare v. Cora Sue Bell.
On July 18, 2018, the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in Embassy Healthcare v. Cora Sue Bell, 2017-1031. At issue in this case is whether a creditor’s failure to present a claim against a decedent’s estate within the six-month statute of limitations of R.C. 2117.06(C) precludes a later action against the decedent’s surviving spouse under Ohio’s necessaries statute, R.C. 3103.03.
Appellee Embassy Healthcare (“Embassy”) operates a nursing home where Appellant Cora Sue Bell’s late husband, Robert, stayed beginning in early 2014. Robert died in May 2014 and no estate was opened. Over six months after his death, Embassy sent Cora (“Cora” or “Bell”) a letter as putative personal representative, asking for payment from Robert’s estate for unpaid nursing services.
In June 2015, Embassy sued Cora individually under R.C. 3103.03, Ohio’s necessaries statute, seeking to recover $1,678 in unpaid nursing services that it provided to Robert, alleging that Cora was obligated to reimburse it for Robert’s debt.
Bell presented two arguments in opposition to Embassy’s claim: (1) that Embassy could not prove, as a matter of law, that Robert could not have paid his own debts, and (2) that the claim was time barred by the six-month statute of limitations for filing claims against a decedent’s estate under R.C. 2117.06.
A magistrate found in favor of Bell, reasoning that Embassy had presented no evidence showing that Robert could not support himself and pay off the debts that Embassy sought.
The trial court agreed with the magistrate, but on different grounds. Finding in favor of Bell on summary judgment, the trial court found that Robert’s alleged debt to Embassy became a debt of Robert’s estate upon his death, but since Embassy failed to present a claim to Robert’s estate, or open an estate for the purposes of doing so within the six-month limitations period imposed by R.C. 2117.06, Embassy’s claim was time-barred. Embassy appealed.
In a split decision authored by Judge Robert A. Hendricson, in which Judge Michael E. Powell concurred, the Twelfth District Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Cora Bell. The appeals court held Embassy’s claim for necessaries against Cora to recover for Robert’s debts under R.C. 3103.03 was an independent cause of action, and not within the purview of R.C. 2117.06(C) or its six-month statute of limitations.
Additionally, the appeals court held that Cora’s motion for summary judgment should not have been granted because the evidence Cora presented to show that Robert had the means to pay his medical bills (thus defeating Embassy’s necessities cause of action against Cora Bell) was too limited to find for Cora on a motion for summary judgment, and that the averments in her affidavit were not all made on personal knowledge.
Judge Robin N. Piper dissented, and would affirm summary judgment for Cora Bell. He would find that Embassy, which had the burden of proof under the necessaries statute, failed to prove that Robert was unable to pay for his necessary medical expenses.
Bell brought this appeal
Votes to Accept the Case*
Yes: Justices O’Donnell, Kennedy, French, and Fischer.
No: Chief Justice O’Connor and Justice DeWine.
*Then-Justice O’Neill not participating.
Key Statutes and Precedent
R.C. 3103.03 Ohio’s Necessaries Statute (“Each married person must support the person’s self and spouse out of the person’s property or by the person’s labor. If a married person is unable to do so, the spouse of the married person must assist in the support so far as the spouse is able.”)
R.C. 2117.06(C) (“Except as provided in section 2117.061 of the Revised Code, a claim that is not presented within six months after the death of the decedent shall be forever barred as to all parties including, but not limited to, devisees, legatees, and distributees.”)
Smith v. Sutter, 90 Ohio App. 320 (6th Dist. 1951) (“The term, ‘necessaries,’ as used in the statute means such food, medicines, clothing, shelter, or personal services as are usually considered reasonably essential for the preservation and enjoyment of life.”)
Wrinkle v. Trabert, 174 Ohio St. 233 (1963) (“where one has a claim against an estate, it is incumbent upon him, if no administrator has been appointed, to procure the appointment of an administrator against whom he can proceed.”)
Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital v. Firestone, 8th Dist. Cuyahoga No. 40967, 1980 WL 354787, at * 4 (Aug. 14, 1980) (finding that failure to present a claim within the time requirements of R.C. 2117.06 did not bar an action for medical expenses under R.C. 3103.03.)
Ohio St. Univ. Hosp. v. Kincaid, 48 Ohio St. 3d 78 (1990) (“Where a husband is unable to provide for his own support, pursuant to R.C. 3103.03 a wife must aid in the support of her husband to the extent that she is able . . . implicit in our decision, without saying more, is that medical expenses are necessaries and, as such, are included as part of any definition of ‘support.’”)
Lewis v. Steinreich, 73 Ohio St.3d 299 (1995) (“The presentment requirements of R.C. 2117.06 apply only to those claims which may be allowed as debts payable out of the assets of an estate.”)
Home Helpers/Direct Link v. St. Pierre, 2011-Ohio-4909 (12th Dist.) (“the plain language of R.C. 3103.03(A) requires that the married person be unable to support himself before the spouse of the married person must assist.”)
D’Amore v. Matthews, 2011-Ohio-2853 (12th Dist.) (“R.C. 2117.06(B) provides that tort and breach of contract claims against an estate must be brought within six months.”)
Wilson v. Lawrence, 2017-Ohio-1410 (“a claim against an estate must be timely presented in writing to the executor or administrator of the estate in order to meet the mandatory requirements of R.C. 2117.06(A)(1)(a) . . . .”)
Cora Bell’s Argument
R.C. 3103.03 does not impose joint liability upon individuals for their spouses’ debts. Instead, it recognizes the duty of support first falls on the individual who incurred the debts. Thus, debtors must first support themselves. Only after debtors are unable to support themselves do their spouses have an obligation to provide support.
In this case, Cora’s husband, Robert, incurred the nursing home debt. Robert passed away more than a year before Embassy brought suit against Cora under R.C. 3103.03. Instead of bringing suit against Robert’s estate as required by R.C. 2117.06, Embassy sued Cora Bell claiming she was personally liable because its debt was for providing necessaries to Robert.
The appeals court was incorrect that R.C. 2117.06 did not apply. The fact that no one opened an estate is no defense to not bringing a claim against the individual under R.C. 2117.06.
Additionally, the Court of Appeals incorrectly limited R.C. 2117.06(C) to claims within an estate and against beneficiaries of that estate. R.C. 2117.06(C) states that a claim is barred against all parties relating to the decedent, including, “but not limited to” beneficiaries. The Twelfth District’s decision makes meaningless the term “but not limited to.”
The Twelfth District’s decision suggests that if a creditor can prove there were no assets in the estate, the creditor can pursue the surviving spouse. However, this would also mean if there were an estate with insufficient assets to pay the creditor’s claims, the creditor could sue the surviving spouse later—a position that is inconsistent with Ohio’s general policy of protecting surviving spouses. The Twelfth District’s renders R.C. 2117.06 irrelevant if the decedent has a surviving spouse because—as is the case here—the creditor could just ignore any probate statutory requirement when recovering a debt against an estate and instead sue the surviving spouse whenever the creditor wants. R.C. 3103.03 is simply not independent of the probate statutory provisions.
Furthermore, a necessities claim under R.C. 3103.03 does not accrue against the spouse unless the debtor’s estate is unable to pay the debt. Only after the estate is unable to pay the debt does the creditor have a claim against the surviving spouse. In this case, Embassy never presented its claim to the estate as required of all creditors by R.C. 2117.06. Therefore, because Robert’s estate was never given the opportunity to pay the claim, Embassy cannot, as a matter of law, prove an essential element of a necessaries claim.
Ohio’s necessaries statute codifies the common law duty of support between spouses and provides an independent basis for creditors who provide these necessaries to recover their cost.
Ohio law makes clear that spouses have a duty to support each other. This duty of support is so strong that if a third party provides a married person with necessaries, the third party can recover the reasonable value of those necessaries from the married person’s spouse, assuming the creditor can prove the two are still married and one has not abandoned the other, the debtor spouse can’t pay and the other can, and that the value of the necessaries was reasonable.
The plain language of R.C. 3103.03 clearly states that a necessaries claim against a married person is not dependent on any other statute. R.C. 3103.03 codifies the idea that married persons owe each other reciprocal duties of support if they are able to do so.
In contrast, a creditor’s claim under R.C. 2117.06 falls under an entirely different statutory framework and is made against the decedent’s estate. The critical language of R.C. 2117.06 is that the creditor has a claim against an estate of the decedent. However, a claim for necessaries under R.C. 3103.03 is not a claim against an estate, but a claim against a married person who is able to support his or her spouse with necessaries when that spouse is unable to do so.
Cora Bell incorrectly argues that any necessaries given to a decedent before his or her death become claims against the estate at the decedent’s death and can only be presented under R.C. 2117.06. Asserting that a claim against an estate is the same as an independent necessaries claim ignores the reality that there are two different statutes. The six-month statute of limitations under R.C. 2117.06 does not exist outside of a claim against an estate, and thus does not apply to this case where the claim is against a surviving spouse. Even though Cora Bell interprets R.C. 2117.06 and R.C. 3103.03 together, courts must first give effect to the words used in each statute, which in this case expressly separate the two statutes’ claims.
The Twelfth District’s ruling does not create a policy conflict between R.C. 2117.06 and R.C. 3103.03 because (1) the plain language of both statutes supports Embassy’s position that a claim for necessaries against a surviving spouse under R.C. 3103.03 is a separate claim; and (2) R.C. 3103.03 contains sufficient protections for the surviving spouse (such as only requiring the surviving spouse to pay what she is able).
The unable-to-pay element of an R.C. 3103.03 necessaries claim does not depend upon first bringing a claim against the decedent’s estate under R.C. 2117.06. While Cora Bell insists that the only way Embassy could prove that Robert Bell could not pay his debts is through a claim against Robert’s estate, R.C. 3103.03 makes no mention of R.C. 2117.06, and courts have not required necessaries claims to first be made against the estate.
Embassy also rebutted a name of points made in the brief of the amici.
Bell’s Proposed Proposition of Law No. 1
The plain language of R.C. 2117.06(C) mandates a claim under R.C. 3103.03 for necessaries supplied to a decedent must be presented to the estate and failure to do so bars the claim against both the estate and the spouse.
Bell’s Proposed Proposition of Law No. 2
By definition, a creditor who fails to timely present its claim to the decedent’s estate cannot prove, as a matter of law, the decedent is unable to pay the claim such that a claim cannot be brought against the spouse under R.C. 3103.03.
Embassy’s Proposed Counter Proposition of Law No. 1
Ohio’s necessaries statute, R.C. 3103.03, does not conflict with the probate statute for presenting claims against an estate, R.C. 2117.06, because R.C. 3103.03 creates an independent statutory cause of action for recovery of sums paid for “necessaries” against a “married person,” which is distinct and separate from a claim against an estate of the married person’s spouse. Therefore, a necessaries claim against a married person is not affected, or otherwise barred, by the limitations period for claims against a decedent’s estate under R.C. 2117.06.
Embassy’s Proposed Counter Proposition of Law No. 2
Because R.C. 3103.03(C) creates an independent cause of action for necessaries, the unable-to-pay element of this cause of action is not dependent upon filing a claim against an estate under R.C. 2117.06.
Amici in Support of Bell
The following organizations jointly filed an amicus brief in support of Bell: The Legal Aid Society of Columbus, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc., Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, Community Legal Aid Services, The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, and The Ohio Association for Justice.
The organizations that contributed to this amicus brief provide low-income clients with legal services and work to secure justice and resolve problems for the low income and vulnerable.
Ohio’s public policy recognizes that the illness or death of a spouse has devastating financial consequences on a healthy spouse. The Twelfth District’s decision goes against the policies enacted to protect individuals with an ailing partner. The Twelfth District’s decision eliminated one of the statutory protections afforded to Cora Bell as a new widow: that Robert’s creditors must file claims against his estate within six months of his death.
Because spouses–particularly elderly women–are reliant on the income and assets of their partner, the poverty rates of widows are much higher than married women. R.C. 2117.06(C) was enacted to protect widows like Cora Bell. Cora Bell and other widows rely on the certainty of the six-month time limit laid out in R.C. 2117.06. Widows and widowers should be able to rely on the fact that creditors must present claims against their deceased spouse’s estate within six months.
Both federal and state laws have been passed to aid spouses with a sick or deceased partner. The amici point to expansions in Medicare and Medicaid to include surviving spouses to assert a general legislative intent to aid those spouses.
Finally, amici argue that Embassy’s position renders R.C. 2117.06(C) meaningless, and violates several rules of statutory interpretation. Two statutes that cover the same subject matter should be presumed to be compatible with each other. In this case, R.C. 2117.06 and R.C. 3103.03 clearly deal with the same subject matter: the payment of debts by someone other than the person who incurred the debt. Additionally, if two statutes are in in conflict, the latest in time should prevail. In this case, R.C. 2117.06 was more recently updated, and prevail as a requirement before a necessaries claim is brought against a surviving spouse.
The amici support Bell’s proposed propositions of law.
Student Contributor: Carson Miller