Am I Responsible for My Spouse's Utility Bill If We Are Separated?

Am I Responsible for My Spouse's Utility Bill If We Are Separated?

Last updated: February 2008

The following question was submitted to John Roska, an attorney/writer whose weekly newspaper column, "Q&A: The Law," runs in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Illinois Edition) and the Champaign News Gazette.

Question:

My husband and I have been separated for about a year and are in the process of getting a divorce. I recently applied for gas and electric service in my own name. The utility company turned me down because of a bill in my husband’s name and at a place where he lived by himself after we broke up. The utility company says I can’t get service until I pay his bill. Is that right?

Answer:

No. The utility company shouldn’t deny your application because of your husband’s bill, if you weren’t living together. They can only hold you liable for bills that you and he ran up together as a family. 

The regulations that apply to utility companies say that they can turn you down for service, or disconnect you, if you’re liable for a past due bill under what’s known as the Illinois Family Expense Act. That law says that “the expenses of the family . . . shall be chargeable upon the property of both husband and wife.” In other words, spouses are jointly liable for family expenses, regardless of whose name the bill is in. 

Power companies interpret this very broadly and assume that it means that both spouses are liable for any bill incurred while they’re married. Illinois courts, however, have said that it’s not a family expense when you’re separated. Then, there’s not really a family anymore, and the bill can’t be a family expense. Only the person actually using the utility is liable in that case.

So, you’ve first got to tell the power company you know the law and get them to let you prove you weren’t living together. Then, you’ve got to give them the proof. Naturally, they won’t just take your word for it. You’ve got to show them documents that prove you weren’t living with your husband. A lease in your name at a different address is best, but other things like your driver’s license, bills, and mail addressed to you at a separate residence will be helpful. Your divorce papers may also help.

Sometimes, though, the best proof isn’t good enough, and the utility company will still say you’ve got to pay the other bill to get service. If that happens, you can file a complaint with the Illinois Commerce Commission, which wrote and enforces the utility regulations. You can do that by phone by calling 1-800-524-0795. The ICC will take information from you and the power company, review the facts, and issue an order based on their interpretation of the situation. Chances are better that the ICC will follow the regulations like the courts have and say you’re not liable.

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