By Kathleen Maloney
The Ohio Supreme Court will hear a case involving the “necessaries” statute, which defines certain obligations spouses have to each other.
A widow has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to determine whether a nursing home can sue her to pay for her deceased husband’s outstanding bill when the facility didn’t first submit the bill to her husband’s estate.
The appeal involves a law referred to as the “necessaries” statute, which requires spouses to support each other with needs such as food, housing, and medical care when the other is unable to do so. The case is among seven that will be heard by the Supreme Court next week.
Nursing Home Operator Seeks Payment for Care
Cora Bell’s husband moved into a Carlisle skilled nursing care facility in January 2014 and died in May of that year. Embassy Healthcare, which operates the nursing home, sent a letter to Bell in November about an outstanding bill of $1,678 for her husband’s care.
In June 2015, Embassy filed a lawsuit against Bell, arguing that she was responsible for the bill based on the necessaries statute, R.C. 3103.03. However, the trial court ruled in Bell’s favor, deciding that Ohio probate law required the company to first submit its claim to the estate of Bell’s husband within six months of his death, which it hadn’t done.
The Twelfth District Court of Appeals reversed the decision. It determined that Embassy’s lawsuit was an independent claim against Bell, not her husband, and wasn’t prohibited by Ohio’s probate law. Bell appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
Claim Should’ve Been Sent to Husband’s Estate First, Widow States
R.C. 2117.06 mandates that creditors with claims against a deceased person’s estate must submit them to the estate within six months of the person’s death. In Embassy Healthcare v. Bell, the widow argues that the probate law offers no exceptions to this process based on the necessaries statute, but instead required Embassy to first submit its claim to her husband’s estate within the six-month timeframe to find out whether the estate would cover the bill.
Without initially determining whether her husband’s estate could pay the bill, Embassy was barred from making a claim under the necessaries statute against her, Bell maintains. If Embassy prevails in this case, she contends that administration of estates in Ohio will be disrupted by allowing creditors to evade probate laws and directly sue surviving spouses.
Five legal service groups and the Ohio Association for Justice have filed a joint amicus brief supporting Bell’s position.
Claim Is Against Widow, Not Deceased Husband, Company Maintains
Embassy argues that the critical language in the probate law is “against the estate.” It maintains that its lawsuit wasn’t a claim against her husband, but rather was a claim against Bell, a married person who may be able to support her spouse by paying his medical bill. Suppliers of necessaries – such as nursing homes, hospitals, and pharmacies – are entitled to recover these expenses under the necessaries statute when a married person neglects to support his or her spouse, the company states.
Embassy also asserts that necessaries claims aren’t dependent on any other statute, including the state’s probate laws. In the company’s view, the necessaries statute applies to claims against a non-debtor spouse for needed items provided while the other spouse is alive.
The company indicates that three state appeals courts, including the Twelfth District, have determined that creditors can file claims against either the deceased’s estate or the surviving spouse.
Oral Argument Details
The Court will consider four cases on Tuesday, July 17. On Wednesday, July 18, the Court will hear three appeals, including Embassy. Oral arguments begin at 9 a.m. at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus. All arguments are streamed live online at sc.ohio.gov and broadcast live and archived on The Ohio Channel.
Case Previews Published
Along with the descriptions provided in this article, the Supreme Court’s Office of Public Information today released in-depth previews of the central arguments in each case.
Tuesday, July 17
In Barclay Petroleum v. Bailey, Hocking County property owners leased their oil and gas rights in the 1980s to a company that commercially sold what it drilled from multiple wells on the land and provided free natural gas to the owners. After the land was divided and sold in 2012, a couple purchased a parcel that included one oil-and-gas well. The new owners contend that the lease for their well expired that year because it failed to produce oil or gas for commercial purposes for more than two years. However, because the prior owners cashed royalty checks, accepted free natural gas, and used the company’s labor and skills to maintain the free service, the company counters that the lease remained in effect.
While being held in jail in Geauga County on probation violations, a man pled guilty to new charges that had been filed the year before. The trial court imposed a three-year prison term with credit for the time he served from the end of his sentence for the probation violations until sentencing on the new offenses. The prosecutor in State v. Cupp argues that state law gives prisoners jail-time credit for time confined for any reason arising out of the current offense. Time in jail or prison for other offenses can’t be credited toward a sentence in a different case, the prosecutor reasons.
A Monroe County man purchased property in 1969 and its deed contained a reference to a 1915 reservation of oil and gas royalty rights by a prior owner of the surface land. The current owner attempted to use the Ohio Marketable Title Act to extinguish the royalty rights, arguing that the description of the reservation didn’t include a “specific identification” of where title searchers would be able to find and verify the reservation. In Blackstone. v. Moore, the landowner argues the law requires the volume and page number of the county recorder’s office index to preserve a reservation more than 40 years old. The heirs to the original royalty owners argue these items aren’t required and the deed contained enough information to maintain the oil and gas rights.
The Board of Commissioners on Character and Fitness recommends a Cincinnati attorney, who practiced law in Kentucky before transferring to her law firm’s Ohio office, not be admitted to the practice of law in Ohio without taking the Ohio bar examination. The board alleges in In re Application of Jones that by continuing to represent Kentucky clients in Kentucky courts while residing and working in Ohio, the lawyer engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. The lawyer and her firm assert that because she doesn’t solicit or represent Ohio clients, she isn’t practicing law in Ohio.
Wednesday, July 18
After a 10-year legal battle, the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed a Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) decision that a cell phone service provider violated the law in its offer of service to a Cincinnati-area cell service wholesaler. Based on the PUCO decision, customers of the cell phone company filed a class-action lawsuit in Cuyahoga County in 2003, alleging that these phone companies inflated prices and drove down competition. After 12 years in trial court, the judge ruled the customers could be certified as a class. In Satterfield v. Ameritech Mobile Communications, the phone company argues the customers can’t base their class action on the ruling dealing with the wholesaler.
In Montgomery County, a man on postrelease control (PRC) for an earlier offense pled guilty to drug possession. The trial court sentenced him to a nine-month prison term for the drug offense and a one-year prison term for violating PRC, to be served consecutively. Noting that state appeals courts disagree on this issue, the prosecutor in State v. Bishop takes the position that courts don’t have to advise defendants about the effect a guilty plea may have on their PRC because that sentence was imposed in a different case. On the other side, arguments center on the need for defendants to understand the consequences of pleas for the pleas to be made knowingly.