Paying dead spouse’s bills at issue in Ohio Supreme Court case

The Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to hear arguments in a case about whether a deceased person's spouse must pay nursing home fees left at the time of death.

The dispute is based on a lawsuit filed against an 80-year-old Franklin Twp. woman in Franklin Municipal Court over an unpaid $1,678 nursing home bill for her husband's care.

Cora Bell’s lawyer, Miriam Sheline, said the decision could have far-reaching implications for other surviving spouses facing big bills for lost loved ones’ care.

"They are dealing with lots of trauma and grief and they get hit with this huge bill," said Sheline, a lawyer with Pro Seniors, Cincinnati-based non-profit who represented Bell after she called the organization's hotline.

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Sheline, with support from five legal aid societies from around Ohio and the Ohio Association for Justice, wants the state’s high court to find that Embassy Healthcare’s claim should be rejected because it failed to file against the Bells’ estate within the six-month statute of limitations set out in state law.

“They instead waited a year and then sued the widow directly,” Sheline said, adding this was the first time a nursing home had appealed a decision on this issue.

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Lawyers for Beachwood-based nursing-home provider Embassy Healthcare want the court to agree with the state's 12th District Court of Appeals that Bell should have to pay according to protections set out in "the state's 'necessaries' statute, which defines certain obligations spouses have to each other," Kathleen Maloney of Court News Ohio, a service of the Ohio Supreme Court, wrote in a summary of the case.

Bell’s husband, Robert, moved into Carlisle Manor in January 2014 and died there in May. Embassy billed Bell in November 2014.

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Rather than pay the bill, Bell called Pro Seniors hotline, as more than 100 people have with similar problems in the past two years, according to Sheline.

Franklin Municipal Court Judge Rupert Ruppert ruled in Bell’s favor, and Embassy — which lists 21 facilities in Ohio on its website — appealed to the Middletown-based appeals court. On July 28, 2017, Bell appealed the 12th District’s decision to the Ohio Supreme Court.

In Sheline’s view, Embassy missed its chance to collect on the bill from Bell or the couple’s estate under provisions of the necessaries law by missing the six-month window for such claims in probate court.

“The Legislature has determined that, after death, the need to provide for the surviving spouse takes precedence over the obligation for the spouse to support the decedent,” Sheline wrote.

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Embassy lawyer Daniel Friedlander in his brief urges the Supreme Court to agree with the 12th District judges. The justices should dismiss the case or send it back to the Franklin court, and the claim against Bell personally, rather than the estate, should be paid.

The ruling could put many surviving spouses in a difficult spot, according to Sheline.

“The spouse has to come into court and prove they are unable to pay the bill. If they are unable to pay the bill, they can’t afford an attorney to prove they are unable to pay the bill,” she said.

Friedlander declined to comment on the case. Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

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