An 81-year-old Warren County widow’s win in the Ohio Supreme Court will have far-reaching implications for other surviving spouses facing bills for the care of loved ones who die, advocates for seniors said.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in favor of Cora Bell in a lawsuit filed in June 2015 against her in Franklin Municipal Court about an unpaid $1,678 nursing home bill for her husband’s care.
Bell’s lawyer, Miriam Sheline, said the decision could help other spouses in Ohio already dealing with grief over the loss of the loss of a loved one.
“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.
Sheline was joined in the case by the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Toledo, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, Community Legal Aid Services in Akron and the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.
Their brief noted Congress and the Ohio General Assembly “have come to recognize that the illness or death of a spouse has devastating financial consequences on a healthy spouse.
“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,” the brief added. “Both federal and state laws have been passed to aid spouses with a sick or deceased partner.”
On Wednesday, the state’s high court ruled 5-2 that a Carlisle nursing home was required to file a claim with the estate of Robert Bell before it could pursue payment for his care from his widow, under Ohio’s “necessaries statute.”
In the majority opinion, Justice Judith L. French explained the law “directs a spouse to care for the other if the spouse is unable to do so. Because the nursing home did not attempt to find out if Robert Bell, through his estate, was able to pay the bill, it could not pursue Cora Sue Bell for payment,” according to a press release from the court.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Sharon L. Kennedy and Mary DeGenaro joined Justice French’s opinion.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Patrick DeWine wrote “that the plain language of the necessaries statute does not require that a creditor first pursue payment from the spouse’s estate,” according to the release.
Justice Patrick F. Fischer also dissented without a written opinion.
“Unfortunately for Embassy, the six-month deadline to present its claim to Robert’s estate expired three days earlier, on November 22, 2014. By that date no estate had been opened for Robert, and Embassy could have but did not seek appointment of an estate administrator,” French wrote.
This was a key point in Sheline’s appeal.
Sheline had urged the state’s high court to reject Embassy Healthcare’s claim because it failed to file against Robert Bell’s estate within the six-month statute of limitations.
“They instead waited a year and then sued the widow directly,” Sheline said in July, adding this was the first time a nursing home had appealed a decision on this issue.
Lawyers for Beachwood-based nursing-home provider Embassy Healthcare wanted 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.
Robert Bell moved into Carlisle Manor in January 2014 and died there in May. Embassy billed Bell in November 2014.
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.
The 12th District ruling 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 in July.
On Wednesday, Friedlander declined to comment.