Bartrom v. Adjustment Bureau, Inc.

Decision Date20 October 1992
Docket NumberNo. 02A04-9204-CV-107,02A04-9204-CV-107
Citation600 N.E.2d 1369
PartiesMary BARTROM, Appellant-Defendant, v. ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, INC., Appellee-Plaintiff.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

David J. Avery, Lebamoff Law Offices, Fort Wayne, for appellant-defendant.

Norman S. Snow, Paul O. Sauerteig, Snow & Sauerteig, Fort Wayne, for appellee-plaintiff.

CHEZEM, Judge.

Case Summary

Defendant-Appellant, Mary Bartrom ("Bartrom"), appeals from the denial of summary judgment for Bartrom and a grant of summary judgment entered in favor of Plaintiff-Appellee, Adjustment Bureau, Inc. ("Adjustment Bureau"). We reverse and remand, with instructions to grant Bartrom's motion for summary judgment.


Whether Bartrom is liable for medical expenses incurred by her husband when the expenses were incurred after Bartrom filed a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage but before an entry of support pursuant to the dissolution was awarded.

Facts and Procedural History

Adjustment Bureau brought an action against Bartrom for medical expenses incurred by her husband, Howard J. Bartrom ("decedent"), who died as a result of the injuries which led to the medical expenses. Adjustment Bureau exhausted all means of recovery against decedent's estate before pursuing Bartrom for the medical expenses. Decedent's assets were jointly held with Bartrom and transferred to her upon his death. Bartrom was also the named beneficiary on life insurance policies owned by Decedent.

Bartrom filed a Motion for Summary Judgment which contended that Bartrom was not personally liable for medical bills incurred by decedent. Adjustment Bureau then filed a Motion in Response to Defendant's Summary Judgment and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. The trial court found that the assigned claim for $67,637.75, plus interest and court costs, represented the value of reasonable and necessary medical services provided to decedent from July 27 through August 25, 1989.

Bartrom and decedent had been married for ten (10) years when Bartrom filed for divorce. There were three minor children from the marital home. From the date Bartrom removed herself and the children from the marriage, June 24, 1989, until decedent's death, Bartrom and decedent did not cohabitate. Bartrom filed her Petition for Dissolution of the Marriage on July 19, 1989. No agreement had been reached or provisional order entered regarding child or spousal support.

During decedent's hospitalization, Bartrom did not visit him, nor did she participate in discussions which led to the termination of the life support medical systems and services provided by the hospital.


This is a case of first impression. We must decide whether Bartrom is liable for medical expenses incurred by her husband when the expenses were incurred after she filed a Petition for Dissolution of the Marriage, but no support order had been entered.

When reviewing a summary judgment, the standard on review is whether there was no genuine issue of material fact and whether the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ind.Rul.Tr.Proc, Rule 56(c); Farm Bureau Co-op v. Deseret Title Holding Corp. (1987), Ind.App., 513 N.E.2d 193, 195, reh. denied; Interstate Auction, Inc. v. Central Nat'l. Ins. Group, Inc. (1983), Ind.App., 448 N.E.2d 1094, 1097.

This is an appropriate case for application of common law to arrive at a summary judgment. The beauty of common law is not that it is static but that it evolves to meet the needs of the case where there is no specific legislative guidance. There are no issues of material fact presented for resolution in this case. We begin by acknowledging the evolving nature of the common law rule that, in the absence of a support or maintenance decree pending a divorce action, a spouse is primarily liable for medical expenses incurred by the other spouse.

We do not approach the common law with disregard for stare decisis, nor do we follow it without critical consideration:

Judicial devotion to the doctrine of stare decisis is indeed a justifiable concept to be followed by our courts. However, it cannot and must not be so strictly pursued to the point where our view is opaqued and reality disregarded. To do so is to envision the common law to be as immutable as the laws of the Medes and Persians, and thus render our system of jurisprudence forever impotent. The strength and genius of the common law lies in its ability to adapt to the changing needs of the society it governs....

Brooks v. Robinson (1972), 259 Ind. 16, 22-23, 284 N.E.2d 794, 797 (J. Hunter).

Under the common law doctrine of necessaries, a husband was responsible for necessary goods and services furnished to his wife by third parties. This rule developed in an era when women were totally dependent on their husbands for support, and was utilized as a method of enforcing this obligation. Because the husband was the financial provider for the family, the doctrine arose from the husband's obligation to support his wife, and was a device intended primarily for the protection and benefit of the wife. Thus, a husband who failed to provide food, shelter, clothing and medical services was liable to the creditor who provided those necessaries to the wife. In exchange, the wife was legally obligated to provide domestic services, society, and consortium to her husband, but was not liable for his necessaries since she was legally incapable of incurring an independent obligation. 1

Adjustment Bureau relies on Allen v. Selig Dry Goods (1929), 90 Ind.App. 290, 165 N.E. 338. In that case, the husband was held to be liable for the debts of his estranged wife despite the fact of pending divorce proceedings because a husband had an obligation to support his wife when no alimony had been ordered and he had not made any other provisions for the support of his wife. The court held that had the husband been paying alimony, he would not have been liable for his estranged wife's bills. This case does not apply to Bartrom's situation for several reasons.

First, it is premised on the common law doctrine of necessities, which has been abrogated in Indiana, because "today's married woman is a different legal creature." Memorial Hospital v. Hahaj (1982), Ind.App., 430 N.E.2d 412, 414. 2 Second, as Bartrom correctly notes, under Indiana Support Guidelines, decedent would not have been entitled to receive spousal maintenance from Bartrom because her income was less than his.

This court modified the common law rule by placing primary liability on the purchasing spouse and secondary liability on the non-debtor spouse. Aker v. Fort Wayne Urology (1990), Ind.App., 562 N.E.2d 751, 752, trans. denied; Memorial Hospital, 430 N.E.2d 412. This new rule imposes liability on the non-debtor spouse for the purchases of the other, regardless of whether the non-debtor spouse knew of the purchases, promised to pay for them, or has the financial resources with which to pay the debt.

In Memorial, Diana Hahaj refused to pay a debt from medical services incurred on her own behalf while she was married. In characterizing marriage as a "financial partnership," we held that "marriage is a shared enterprise, a joint undertaking, that in many ways ... is akin to a partnership." Id. at 415-416 (citation omitted). The spouse who incurred the debt was held to be primarily liable and the resources of the marital relationship was secondarily liable. Adjustment Bureau would have us adapt our reasoning in Memorial to the case before us now.

Our motive in viewing the marriage as a financial partnership was to shelter the non-purchasing spouse: "marshalling the marital resources in (this) manner grants some protection to the spouse who has not expressly consented to the debt." Id. Certain facts distinguish Bartrom's situation from the defendant's in Memorial. First, unlike Hahaj, Bartrom did not incur the medical bills herself, nor did she consent to the medical bills and, in fact, expressly denied any fiscal responsibility for them. Bartrom, as the dependent spouse, would have been protected under the traditional necessities doctrine. Additionally, the facts indicate that there were no marital resources from which the debt could be paid. Bartrom received $8,000.00 in marital equity, which was offset by $33,700.00 in marital debt. 3 Thus, the hospital was unreasonable to assume that there were sufficient marital assets to pay for decedent's medical debts.

Bartrom argues that she should not be liable under a theory of abandonment. She relies on Yale University School of Medicine v. Collier (1988), 206 Conn. 31, 536 A.2d 588, which held that when one spouse was in default of his or her marital duties the obligations of the other spouse were considered suspended. She supports her premise with Cole v. Adams (1982), 56 N.C.App. 714, 289 S.E.2d 918 and Holiday Hospital Assoc. v. Schwarz (1964), Fla.App., 166 So.2d 493, cases which held husbands liable for the debts of their wives when the wives left the husbands due to their misconduct. However, the Indiana legislature provided no-fault divorce for several valid policy reasons. These same policy reasons should be applied in this case. We will not indict the dead with an offense of abandonment.

Notwithstanding such, Bartrom argues that she should not be liable for her husband's necessities under the common law rule because she had filed a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. She argues the filing of a Petition for Dissolution should be the gravamen in determining whether a spouse should be responsible for an estranged spouse's medical bills when the spouse who is sought to be financially responsible would not have been obligated to pay spousal maintenance to the other spouse. We agree. Had Mr. Bartrom died after an order of support and/or maintenance was awarded, his wife would not be before this court today. His untimely death is not a cause for applying a rule contrary to its purpose.

Adjustment Bureau...

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3 cases
  • 88 Hawai'i 489, Queen's Medical Center v. Kagawa, 21034
    • United States
    • Hawaii Court of Appeals
    • September 23, 1998
    ..."one spouse is not liable for the debts of another spouse when a [p]etition for [d]issolution of [m]arriage has been filed [.]" Bartrom I, 600 N.E.2d at 1374 (emphasis added). The Indiana Court of Appeals in Bartrom I relied, in part, on Mercado, concluding that "Indiana law clearly states ......
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    • Indiana Supreme Court
    • July 20, 1993 a divided vote; it reversed and remanded with instructions to grant Mary's motion for summary judgment. Bartrom v. Adjustment Bureau (1992), Ind.App., 600 N.E.2d 1369. I. Evolution of the Necessaries A. The Original Doctrine. The doctrine of necessaries was developed to obviate some of t......
  • Trackwell v. Trackwell
    • United States
    • Indiana Appellate Court
    • December 20, 2000
    ...trial court." Appellant's Brief at 13. 4. We note that an opinion cited by Husband in his appellate brief, Bartrom v. Adjustment Bureau, Inc., 600 N.E.2d 1369 (Ind.Ct.App. 1992), was vacated upon transfer to our supreme court. See 618 N.E.2d 1 5. See Hacker v. Hacker, 659 N.E.2d 1104, 1108 ......

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