The Simple Bare “Necessaries”

Look for the bare necessities
The simple bare necessities
Forget about your worries and your strife
I mean the bare necessities
That’s why a bear can rest at ease
With just the bare necessities of life”

       –   “The Bare Necessities” from Disney’s The Jungle Book

On August 30, 2017, the published portion of the decision by the Court of Appeal of California for the Third Appellate District, in a case entitled Direct Capital Corporation v. Grant Brooks, distinguished in divorce between the common necessaries of life and the necessaries of life as well as with the implications of whether a married person is responsible for the debt incurred by their spouse prior to the date of separation.

The reason for the court’s seemingly long-winded discussion about this issue was because the Husband’s wages were garnished after a creditor obtained a judgment against the Wife for a debt she incurred prior to the parties’ date of separation.

In California, the law provides that a married person is personally liable for a debt of their spouse incurred before the date of separation, if that debt was incurred for necessaries of life; however, if the debt is incurred after the date of separation for common necessaries of life, the determination of liability for the debt lends itself to a different analysis.

Facts of the Case

The Wife, a since-disbarred Kansas attorney who then practiced law in Stockton, California, leased computer equipment from Direct Capital Corporation (DCC). After she did not pay for the equipment, DCC sued her and obtained a judgment for $40,000 and later moved to garnish the wages of her Husband, also an attorney.

DCC alleged that the parties were married when the Wife’s debt was incurred (an undisputed fact in the case), and therefore the Wife’s debt was a community obligation. However, her Husband claimed that the computers his Wife leased were not a necessary of life and because the parties were subsequently obtaining a divorce the debt should be simply assigned to the Wife. The Court disagreed with the Husband and upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Necessaries v. Common Necessaries of Life

The court’s decision turned on the definition of the necessaries of life versus the common necessaries of life. The Husband argued that the computers were not a necessary of life and therefore should be the Wife’s separate property debt. However, the court of appeal disagreed and upheld the trial court to find that the Wife’s law office needed computers, which thus were necessary for her ability to earn a living.  While the Husband argued that computers were merely a convenience for lawyers but not necessary to practice law, the court disagreed. Accordingly finding that the computers were necessary for the Wife’s law practice, and thus a necessary of their life, the Court upheld DCC’s motion to garnish the Husband’s wages.

Whether something is a necessary of life involves determining if that particular item is needed to sustain life for a particular couple or family, before or after the date of separation; common necessaries are things that all families need. Thus, the Court found that the Wife’s debt was indeed a necessary of life, because in this particular marriage the computers were necessary for the Wife to operate her law practice, and thus earn a living. Therefore, this debt, incurred before the parties’ date of separation, was a community obligation and both the Husband and Wife were responsible for the debt owed to DCC.

Lesson Learned:  Be Aware

This case ultimately teaches all of us that, when looking for those bare necessaries of life, do not forget about your worry or your strife.  It is good advice instead to pay attention to what your spouse is doing, how they are spending money, and if they incur any large expenditures, even if for their business. If a divorce occurs, one spouse may be responsible for debts if they were a necessary of life – a definition that is indeed very broad and extremely subjective.