Am I Legally Liable?

I receive phone calls from current and past clients every week presenting different scenarios and asking me, “Am I legally liable?” This article will address some of the more common questions people ask. Are you liable for your parents’ debt? Are you liable for your spouse? Are you liable for your children? Learn the answers by reading below.

Am I liable for my parents?

Whether your parents live with you, on their own or in a nursing home, many people wonder if they are legally responsible for their parents. The general rule is that children are not legally responsible for their parents. There are two important exceptions. First, if you are a co-signer or guarantor for your mother or father, you can be held personally responsible for that obligation. The other exception is if you have a joint bank account. Many people open a joint account for their convenience and to assist their mother or father. It does not matter who contributes the money to the account, a creditor of either you or your parent can legally take the entire amount. So, if you contribute your own money to a joint account with your parent, your parent’s creditor can take it. The converse of this is also true. If you have a joint account with your mother or father’s money, your creditors can take that money. Be careful when opening a joint account with your parents because it can make you legally liable.

Am I liable for my spouse’s debt?

Yes, sometimes a spouse incurs a debt without the knowledge or approval of the other spouse. Is a husband legally liable for his wife’s debt and vice versa? Like being liable for your parents’ debt, if you are a co-signer or guarantor of a debt of your spouse, you will be liable. But generally speaking, a spouse is not responsible for debt incurred solely in the name of the other spouse. So, even if your husband or wife runs up a large credit card debt on their card, you cannot be held legally liable for this debt.
An important exception to this, which is not applicable to your parents’ debt, is medical bills. Illinois has a law called the “Rights of Married Persons Act.” Section 15 of this law makes a spouse legally liable for the medical expense of the other spouse, even if they did not authorize it. This comes up frequently when we represent injured individuals with no health insurance. A husband may be in a serious accident and incur substantial medical bills and the wife can be held legally liable.

Am I legally liable for my children?

The answer to this question is not as clear as you may believe. Like a spouse’s medical bills, a parent is legally responsible for the medical bills of a child under the age of 18. It gets trickier when parents are divorced. Often, the divorce decree dictates which parent or parents are responsible for their children’s medical bills. Once a child turns 18, the child is legally responsible for his or her own medical bills unless the parent signs an agreement with the medical provider to pay those bills.
As for other debts incurred by children under 18, parents generally are not legally liable for these debts. Furthermore, a child under 18 is not legally liable for a debt because they lack the legal capacity to enter into legally binding agreements. It is for this reason that no credit card company nor car loan company will provide credit to a minor. The law allows the minor to void the agreement at any time because a minor cannot legally enter into a contract.

What if my child is driving my car and gets into an accident? As long as you gave permission to your child and as long as you disclosed the fact that you had a teenager in your house, your car insurance should cover the accident. Insurance coverage for a child under 18 can be tricky and you should consult with an experienced lawyer to be sure of any technicalities.

Is a parent legally liable for their child’s actions?

Finally, can a parent be legally liable for the actions of their child? Under the law, parents are generally not legally liable for the actions of their children. However, if the child’s actions are willful or malicious, the Illinois Parental Responsibility Act places legal responsibility on the parents. Actions which are merely negligent, like a car accident, are not enough to hold the parents liable for the actions of their child. However, things like vandalism, theft or beating someone up are likely willful and malicious and the parents can be legally liable for the damages caused by their child.
McCready Law specialize in personal injury, workers’ compensation and disability cases. If you have a question about whether you may be liable, always feel free to contact us by calling 773-779-9885 or e-mail us.

by Michael McCready