James H. Brickley
Michael F. Cavanagh
Patricia J. Boyle
Elizabeth A. Weaver
Clifford W. Taylor
Docket No. 105156. Argued March 4, 1998 (Calendar No. 12). Decided May 19, 1998.
Ottawa Circuit Court, Wesley J. Nykamp, J.
Court of Appeals, M. J. Kelly and A. J. Ferrara, JJ., Markey, P.J. (Docket No. 173302).
214 Mich App 518; 543 NW2d 37 (1995).
NORTH OTTAWA COMMUNITY HOSPITAL,
BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH
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),See footnote 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 NW2d 684 (1986), and Bronson Methodist Hosp v LaRoy, 171 Mich App 729; 430 NW2d 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, 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. 213 Mich 518; 543 NW2d 37 (1995). We granted leave to appeal.See footnote 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,See footnote 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 NE2d 1, 3 (Ind, 1993).See footnote 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.See footnote 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. [MCL 557.21(1); MSA 26.165(1)(1) (emphasis added).]
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).][See footnote 6 ]
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 NJ 137; 417 A2d 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 Orr, 440 US 268; 99 S Ct 1102; 59 L Ed 2d 306 (1979) (where the United States Supreme Court held that a statute under which husbands, but not wives, might be ordered to pay alimony violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment). If it is true, as plaintiff asserts, that the New Jersey statute did not bar the court from finding the wife liable for her husband's medical expenses, the New Jersey Supreme Court would not have found it necessary to rely upon constitutional considerations but would have merely changed the common law. [149 Mich App 798-800.]
From there, the Court embarked on a discussion that apparently
served both to expand the common law to give wives the
responsibility of paying the medical expenses of husbands, and
effectively to hold the statute unconstitutional. However,
the discussion of the constitutional question was, at best,
In Manatee Convalescent Center, Inc v McDonald, 392 So 2d 1356, 1357 (Fla App, 1980), the Second District Court of Appeals stated in part:
"The law is not static. It must keep pace with changes in society, for the doctrine of stare decisis is not an iron mold which can never be changed."
* * *
The Manatee Court concluded:
"Changing times demand reexamination of seemingly unchangeable legal dogma. Equality under law and even handed treatment of the sexes in the modern marketplace must also carry the burden of responsibility which goes with the benefits." 392 So 2d 1358.
We find the law from our sister states to be persuasive and, therefore, we hold that a wife is liable for the medical necessaries of her husband. The question still remaining is what remedy should this Court provide. We do not think that it is equitable in this case to hold the defendant liable where both the plaintiff and the defendant have relied on prior law (when the expense was incurred) which we have changed today to keep pace with the changes in society.[See footnote 8 ] We adopt this principle prospectively so that it applies only to debts incurred after the date of this decision. [Borgess Medical Center, 149 Mich App 800-801.]
After reviewing the New Jersey case on which Borgess Medical Center primarily relied, it is evident that the Court was attempting to explain its expansion of the common law.See footnote 9
Relying on analysis from Borgess, the Court of Appeals in the present case held the MWPA to be unconstitutional and
found defendant Barbara Kieft liable for her husband's
medical necessities. The analysis is brief. After
summarizing the history of this case and noting the decision
in Borgess, the majority stated:
Article 1, § 2 of the Michigan Constitution of 1963, as well as the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides for equal protection of the law. The Court in Borgess Medical Center, supra, concluded by necessary implication that the married women's property act is unconstitutional. We agree. [214 Mich App 520.]
Beyond "[w]e agree," the majority did not explain its
conclusion that Borgess correctly found the statute to be unconstitutional.See footnote 10
In the present case, Ms. Kieft argues that the Borgess Court's expansion of the necessaries doctrine imposing liability on wives was inappropriate because such an extension
of the common law is specifically precluded by statute and the
Michigan Constitution. We agree. The final sentence of MCL
557.21(1); MSA 26.165(1)(1) expressly indicates that such an
obligation cannot be imposed:
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. [Emphasis added.]
As spelled out above, the language in art 10, § 1 of the
Michigan Constitution provides similar protection. We
overrule Borgess to the extent that its expansion of the necessaries doctrine, imposing a corresponding obligation on
wives, is inconsistent with both the MWPA and the Michigan Constitution.
We now reach the principal question presented in this appeal, namely, whether art 10, § 1 of the Michigan
Constitution and the final sentence of MCL 557.21(1); MSA
26.165(1)(1) are constitutional in light of the equal
protection guarantees provided under both art 1, § 2 of the
Michigan Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment of the
United States Constitution.See footnote 11
The United States Supreme Court has held that, for a gender-based classification to pass constitutional muster, it must serve an important governmental objective and be substantially related to the achievement of that objective. Califano v Webster, 430 US 313, 317; 97 S Ct 1192; 51 L Ed 2d 360 (1977), quoting Craig v Boren, 429 US 190, 197; 97 S Ct 451; 50 L Ed 2d 397 (1976). Employing this standard, the Supreme Court has overturned statutory gender classifications where the state's purpose could be achieved by gender-neutral regulation. Orr v Orr, 440 US 268; 99 S Ct 1102; 59 L Ed 2d 306 (1979) (a state statute allowing alimony for wives, but not for husbands, was held invalid). However, the Court has also upheld a gender-discriminatory classification if necessary to compensate for past gender discrimination. Kahn v Shevin, 416 US 351; 94 S Ct 1734; 40 L Ed 2d 189 (1974) (a Florida statute granting widows, but not widowers, a property tax exemption was upheld because the state's objective to cushion widows' greater financial difficulties was held constitutionally valid).
We find that both art 10, § 1 of the Michigan Constitution and the MWPA, on their own, form a gender-neutral scheme under which each spouse is independent of the other. On their faces, the provisions state an unremarkable proposition: A married woman is not liable for a contract to which she is not a party. As indicated above, these provisions have the purpose and effect of relieving married women of the disabilities of coverture and place them on an equal footing with respect to contract and property rights with both unmarried women and men. Accordingly, we find that these provisions are designed to promote, rather than hinder, economic equality.See footnote 12
In light of the foregoing, we are satisfied that the MWPA and art 10, § 1 of the Michigan Constitution are not violative of the Equal Protection Clauses of the Michigan and federal constitutions. To the extent that it held otherwise, Borgess, supra, is overruled. As explained above, for historical reasons, there was greater need to legislate the economic equality of women, and, therefore, the absence of corresponding provisions (other than the provision protecting the property of married men, MCL 557.24; MSA 26.165) regarding the economic status of men is readily explainable on that basis.
However, the enforcement of the provisions under review today may cause a disparate effect on married men if a court were to apply the common-law necessaries doctrine that holds a husband liable for the necessary medical expenses of his wife.See footnote 13 There is no question that, when applied to married men only, the necessaries doctrine qualifies as gender-based discrimination and offends the principle of equal protection of the law. Clearly, the underlying governmental objective of the common-law doctrine was to provide for a dependent wife who surrendered all her property rights to her husband at the time of marriage. Thus, the common-law necessaries doctrine imposing the support burden only on a husband could be justified in the past because it was substantially related to the important governmental objective of providing necessary support to dependent wives. However, the contemporary reality of women owning property, working outside the home, and otherwise contributing to their own economic support calls for the abrogation of this sex-discriminatory doctrine from early common law.See footnote 14
We find that the provisions of the MWPA and Michigan
Constitution under review today preclude North Ottawa from
recovering from Ms. Kieft health care expenses incurred by her
deceased husband. We also find that these provisions do not
violate the Equal Protection Clauses of the Michigan and
federal constitutions. However, as traditionally formulated,
the common-law necessaries doctrine violates equal protection
principles, and we remedy this unconstitutionality by
abrogating the doctrine, holding that neither a husband nor a
wife is liable, absent express agreement, for necessaries
supplied to the other. We reverse the decision of the Court
of Appeals and remand this case to the circuit court for entry of judgment in favor of defendant.
Mallett, C.J., and Cavanagh, Boyle, Weaver, Kelly, and Taylor, JJ., concurred with Brickley, J.
Bussard & Sielski (by James W. Bussard)[234½ Washington, Grand Haven, MI 49417] [(616) 842-5210] for the defendant-
Robert E. Butcher [3133 Van Horn, P.O. Box 475, Trenton, MI 48183] [(313) 675-3990] for Barbara Kieft.
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. [MCL 557.21(1); MSA 26.165(1) (emphasis added).]
Accordingly, I concur in the result only. [214 Mich App 520.]
Ideally, individuals of either gender should have equal legal rights and responsibilities, regardless of marital status. However, since the legislature cannot pass a blanket statute to abolish common law, some people say that the most effective way to correct the present inequalities would be to replace the Married Women's Property Acts with a more comprehensive statute which would assure married women of the same legal status as men and unmarried women. [House Legislative Analysis, HB 4098, May 12, 1981, p 1.]