North Ottawa Community Hosp. v. Kieft

Decision Date19 May 1998
Docket NumberDocket No. 105156,No. 12,12
Citation457 Mich. 394,578 N.W.2d 267
PartiesNORTH OTTAWA COMMUNITY HOSPITAL, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Barbara KIEFT, Defendant-Appellant. Calendar
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Bussard & Sielski by James W. Bussard, Grand Haven, for defendant-appellant.

Robert E. Butcher, Trenton, amicus curiae for Barbara Kieft.


BRICKLEY, Justice.

Defendant Barbara Kieft, whose deceased husband David received medical services from plaintiff North Ottawa Community Hospital, appeals the circuit court's grant of summary disposition for plaintiff in its collection action against her. She defends this action on the basis of a provision of the married women's property act (MWPA), 1 which the Court of Appeals found to be unconstitutional.

For the reasons that follow, we find that the MWPA is constitutional and that it bars a judgment against Ms. Kieft for her husband's medical expenses. Consistent with our findings today, we abrogate the common-law doctrine of necessaries and hold that neither a husband nor a wife is liable, absent express agreement, for necessaries supplied to the other. The decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and we remand this case to the circuit court for entry of judgment in favor of defendant.


Barbara Kieft and David Kieft were a married couple. David received health care services from North Ottawa Community Hospital and, upon his death, left an insolvent estate. The hospital attempted to recover from Ms. Kieft the unpaid hospital charges, which amounted to $22,191.81. From the materials at hand, it appears that the parties agree that Ms. Kieft did not contract for David's care, nor did she agree to guarantee payment for his care.

To recover the outstanding debt, North Ottawa brought this suit against Ms. Kieft. In its complaint, North Ottawa stated that Ms. Kieft had "a common law and/or statutory obligation to pay for necessaries and/or support of the parties." Ms. Kieft answered that "she has no duty and has never assumed the obligation of paying for the services rendered to David Kieft."

North Ottawa moved for summary disposition, pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(9), (10). Noting Ms. Kieft's denial of an obligation to pay for Mr. Kieft's health care expenses, North Ottawa stated in its motion that "it is well established Michigan law, that each spouse is obligated to pay for the medical necessaries rendered to the spouse, if they were rendered during the marriage." An accompanying brief cited Borgess Medical Center v. Smith, 149 Mich.App. 796, 386 N.W.2d 684 (1986), and Bronson Methodist Hosp. v. LaRoy, 171 Mich.App. 729, 430 N.W.2d 817 (1988), as authority for the obligation of the wife to pay the debts of the husband.

The circuit court granted summary disposition, finding that "pursuant to Borgess at 801, 386 N.W.2d 684, this Court must hold that the wife is liable for the medical necessities of her husband." The court then entered judgment in favor of North Ottawa for the full $22,191.81, plus costs and interest.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that the MWPA is unconstitutional, and held Ms. Kieft liable for her husband's medical necessities. 214 Mich.App. 518, 543 N.W.2d 37 (1995). We granted leave to appeal. 2


This appeal presents three separate but interrelated questions. First, does the MWPA (and a related provision in the Michigan Constitution) preclude North Ottawa from recovering from Ms. Kieft health care expenses incurred by her deceased husband? Second, if the provisions bar judgment against Ms. Kieft for her husband's debts, are those provisions violative of the Equal Protection Clauses of the Michigan and federal constitutions? Finally, in light of equal protection considerations, does the common-law necessaries doctrine remain valid?


It is well known that the common law imposed significant economic disabilities on married women, and that property rights of women in Michigan were virtually nonexistent before the enactment of married women's property acts. Burdeno v. Amperse, 14 Mich. 91 (1866), and Tong v. Marvin, 15 Mich. 60 (1866). At common law, a married woman, by her coverture, 3 enjoyed no individual rights pertaining to the property she may have owned before the marriage or acquired during the marriage. The state of coverture was virtually a legal disability whereby a woman lost the capacity to contract, sue, or be sued individually. "In short, [coverture] stripped a married woman of virtually all means of self-support." Bartrom v. Adjustment Bureau, Inc., 618 N.E.2d 1, 3 (Ind., 1993). 4

In an apparent effort to place married women on a more equal footing with single women, the Michigan Legislature abrogated some of the harsh features imposed on women at common law by enacting a series of married women's property acts. The acts included enlarging married women's property and contractual rights, thereby removing some of the disabilities of coverture. 5 In 1981, the Legislature enacted the most recent version of the MWPA, declaring that a wife's separate property is not subject to her husband's debts:

If a woman acquires real or personal property before marriage or becomes entitled to or acquires, after marriage, real or personal property through gift, grant, inheritance, devise, or other manner, that property is and shall remain the property of the woman and be a part of the woman's estate. She may contract with respect to the property, sell, transfer, mortgage, convey, devise, or bequeath the property in the same manner and with the same effect as if she were unmarried. The property shall not be liable for the debts, obligations, or engagements of any other person, including the woman's husband, except as provided in this act. [M.C.L. § 557.21(1); M.S.A. § 26.165(1)(1) (emphasis added).]

A later provision in the same act empowers a married woman to contract, but specifies that she may be sued separately on her contracts and that a husband is not liable upon any contract made by his wife "unless the husband acted as a surety, co-signor [sic], or guarantor on the contract." M.C.L. § 557.24(2); M.S.A. § 26.165(4)(2).

Advancing notions of equity are also reflected in the last three constitutions adopted by the people of Michigan, with the most recent providing:

The disabilities of coverture as to property are abolished. The real and personal estate of every woman acquired before marriage and all real and personal property to which she may afterwards become entitled shall be and remain the estate and property of such woman, and shall not be liable for the debts, obligations or engagements of her husband, and may be dealt with and disposed of by her as if she were unmarried. Dower may be relinquished or conveyed as provided by law. [Const. 1963, art. 10, § 1 (emphasis added).][ [ 6 Although the foregoing provisions of the MWPA and the Michigan Constitution enlarged rights and removed disabilities imposed on married women at common law, the common-law necessaries doctrine, which essentially makes husbands liable for necessities that are provided to their wives, has remained unmodified in this state. See Pritchard v. Bigger, 288 Mich. 447, 450, 285 N.W. 17 (1939) (opinion of BUSHNELL, J.), In re LaFreniere's Estate, 323 Mich. 562, 564, 36 N.W.2d 147 (1949), Detroit v. Eisele, 362 Mich. 684, 686, 108 N.W.2d 763 (1961). 7 The doctrine, which attempted to "obviate some of the victimization which coverture would otherwise have permitted," has been characterized as providing a common-law "mechanism by which the duty of support could be enforced." Bartrom, 618 N.E.2d at 3.

Recently, creditors and husbands in a number of states, including Michigan, have asserted a constitutional equal protection challenge to the necessaries doctrine, demanding reexamination of the doctrine's modern viability. As noted above, at common law, the doctrine imposed liability only on the husband for his family's necessaries, while not recognizing a reciprocal liability on the part of the wife for the husband's necessaries, with the primary purpose being to assure that dependent wives received support from neglectful husbands. Note, The unnecessary doctrine of necessaries, 82 Mich. L. R. 1767 (1984). This gender-discriminatory application has more recently resulted in the abrogation of the doctrine in some states, Condore v. Prince George's Co., 289 Md. 516, 425 A.2d 1011 (1981); Schilling v. Bedford Co. Memorial Hosp., 225 Va. 539, 303 S.E.2d 905 (1983), while other states have expanded the doctrine to apply equally or quasiequally to both spouses. North Carolina Baptist Hosps. v. Harris, 319 N.C. 347, 354 S.E.2d 471 (1987); Jersey Shore Medical Center-Fitkin Hosp. v. Baum Estate, 84 N.J. 137, 417 A.2d 1003 (1980).


The common-law necessaries doctrine was squarely before our Court of Appeals in Borgess Medical Center, supra. In that case, a married man without assets died in 1983, and Borgess Medical Center sued his widow for the cost of medical services provided to him. After noting that the MWPA made it clear that a wife is not responsible for her husband's debts, the Borgess Court suggested that it was time for a change in the law, referencing Jersey Shore Medical Center, supra, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court held both spouses liable for each other's necessaries on the basis of the court's view of marriage as a partnership. The Borgess Court stated:

In Jersey Shore Medical Center-Fitkin Hospital v. Estate of Baum, 84 N.J. 137, 417 A.2d 1003 (1980), the New Jersey Supreme Court found that the New Jersey Married Woman's Act, NJSA 37:2-15, if read literally, would bar liability for either spouse for the medical debts of the other.

While there is no Michigan case addressing this issue, several cases have emerged from our sister states within the last 25 years on this subject. In holding that a married woman is responsible for her husband's medical necessities, the Jersey Shore Court relied upon Orr v....

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