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Columns: Bankruptcy Adviser
Justin Harelik   Expert: Justin Harelik
Bankruptcy Adviser
Hospital bills push new parents into deeper trouble
Bankruptcy Adviser

Medical debts and bankruptcy
 

Dear Bankruptcy Adviser,
My soon to be husband would like to know if he would be able to file bankruptcy (pending) on my medical bills? I told him because they were under my name, that he would not be able to; however, we are both wondering if he could file a bankruptcy under our just born son's name and eliminate the medical bills. Or will this be considered under my name as well since we were not married when the bills were incurred?
-- Mary

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Dear Mary,
Stories like this truly make me nauseous. Illness is one of the three most common reasons people file bankruptcy. In some cases, the co-pay costs alone become insurmountable. But there are few options available to pay back the debt. You are right to consider bankruptcy when it appears there is no other option.

Before filing for bankruptcy protection, you ought to contact the hospital directly to see whether you could qualify for low-income waivers so that the hospital (or a foundation associated with the hospital) will pay the bills. Many hospitals provide financial assistance to anyone who is below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. But there are some circumstances that could make a person over that level eligible as well. Typically, an illness is also accompanied by a period of unemployment. You might easily qualify for financial assistance.

The majority of hospitals across the country, especially nonprofit hospitals, have charity care programs that pick up all or part of the cost of care for indigent or special needs families. Sometimes all it takes is one question to the hospital administrator to find out about these programs.

There are also nonprofit organizations that work with people buried in medical debt. Some are funded by large private donors. These organizations will negotiate on your behalf to reduce the balance and sometimes pay the negotiated balance. However, it is very important that you keep the bills from going into collections. Collection agencies are for-profit companies and are not as easy to work with as the primary care facility.

While I don't think you want to have your son file bankruptcy, be aware that your son will not be liable for any of the medical bills. He is under 18 and therefore cannot enter into a legally binding contract. Even if the bills are in his name only, the hospital (or subsequent collection agency) cannot sue him for the bills. What would the collection agency do anyway? Put a lien on his crib?

Your soon-to-be husband cannot file Chapter 7 bankruptcy in order to eliminate the debts in your name. You are the primary individual liable for the debt. However, he could file a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which is essentially a monthly payment plan. As long as you include all credit debts into the Chapter 13 plan payment, then all bills will be eliminated. This is an option for you, as well.

Finally, try to negotiate a payment plan with the hospital. Something is better than nothing and bankruptcy will only place a larger burden on the hospital's bottom line.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: March 18, 2008
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