Can I sue my ex to pay an old bill?


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Dear Bankruptcy Adviser,
Can I sue my ex-wife to pay for a medical bill? The bill came in 2011 and we got sued in 2012. We divorced in 2013 and she filed for bankruptcy around the time we got divorced. Can I make her pay half of the bill? Can I do this without a lawyer?
— Larry

Dear Larry,
This is a very fair question; I wish the answer were straightforward. The key to the question is the divorce decree, known sometimes as a marital settlement agreement. That agreement will tell you whether you have the right to force your ex-wife to contribute to this bill.

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You were married at the time you or your wife had the medical issue. I’m assuming you made payments on the bill, but had not paid the balance at the time of your divorce. I’ll also assume that both of you were on the bill because you state the hospital or collection agency sued both of you.

Even with these assumptions, your divorce paperwork will state whether she has to pay. If she does, then you potentially have a case in which to sue her and get a judgment against her. Here’s what to look for in the divorce decree:

1. Did you agree to pay this bill?

Many times, a client will agree to pay a bill held in both spouses’ names as part of the divorce settlement agreement. The client will then want to file bankruptcy. However, the bankruptcy laws protect the non-filing spouse.

If one spouse agrees to pay a bill that is in both spouses’ names, that spouse cannot eliminate that debt in a bankruptcy. The non-filing spouse can force the filing spouse to pay that bill after the bankruptcy case ends.

This is a common occurrence when the divorce is contentious. One spouse just wants the divorce proceedings to end. He or she will agree to take all debt, knowing in the back of his or her mind that a bankruptcy filing is looming. Unfortunately, signing the divorce decree would exempt that debt from elimination in your bankruptcy.

This analysis changes if both spouses file bankruptcy. That would wipe out the debt for husband and wife.

2. Did you agree to split all marital debt?

If you did agree to split this bill and others, her bankruptcy will not eliminate her responsibility to pay. That means you could still make her contribute to the monthly payment and force her to pay her half of the bill. Since you are still liable on the balance, you can force her to contribute to pay her portion of the bill.

Having the right to make her pay and getting her to pay are two separate issues. It is usually pretty easy and straightforward to sue someone and get a judgment against them. It is entirely different to get him or her to pay.

You may be able to fill out the paperwork to sue your ex-wife and get a judgment against her without using an attorney. You will have to research as to how you can make her pay. You can garnish her wages and levy bank accounts. But you can’t do either of these without a court order.

So the short answer to your question is, “maybe.” You may be able to make her pay, but actually having her pay will be the challenge.

Good luck!

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