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Things indispensable, or things proper and useful, for the sustenance of human life.

Traditional law required a husband to support his wife during their marriage irrespective of the wife's own means, her own ability to support herself, or even her own earnings, which, according to the Married Women's Property Acts passed in the mid-nineteenth century, she could do with as she pleased. The wife had no corresponding duty to support her husband. A husband owed the same support to the couple's children. He had the legal obligation to provide "necessaries" for his wife and children, which encompass food, clothing, lodging, health care, education, and comfort. Modern Family Law is now gender neutral: husbands and wives have an equal and mutual obligation to provide necessaries.

Courts rarely let themselves be involved in family disputes concerning necessaries while the marriage is ongoing. Depending on a couple's income, what is deemed "necessary" will vary widely. Although the level at which a spouse is to be maintained during marriage should correspond to the couple's station in life, successful litigation defining support obligations during marriage is rare. When a couple separates or divorces, maintenance and support become issues for the courts.

The law has recognized the wife's traditional authority to purchase necessaries. If a husband fails to fulfill his duty of support, his wife is authorized to purchase what necessaries she or their child needs, on the husband's credit and even against his express wishes. Beyond the basic necessities, courts look to the couple's circumstances. In some cases fur coats, gold watches, jewelry, and expensive furniture have been deemed necessaries. It is up to the merchant to show that the unauthorized purchases were in fact necessaries, and the merchant will not collect from the husband if the husband actually furnished appropriate necessaries to his wife and family.

The future of the necessaries rule is unclear. It may become gender neutral by evolving to protect purchases by the nonearning spouse in role-divided marriages, or it may disappear altogether because of the increasing financial independence of marriage partners and the attendant blurring of role division.


Alimony; Child Support; Divorce; Husband and Wife.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


food, clothing, or shelter essential for the maintenance of a dependant in the condition of life to which he or she is accustomed.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

NECESSARIES. Such things as are proper and requisite for the sustenance of man.
     2. The term necessaries is not confined merely to what is requisite barely to support life, but includes many of the conveniences of refined society. It is a relative term, which must be applied to the circumstances and conditions of the parties. 7 S. & R. 247. Ornaments and superfluities of dress, such as are usually worn by the party's rank and situation in life, have been classed among necessaries. 1 Campb. R. 120; 7 C. & P. 52; 1 Hodges, R. 31; 8 T. R. 578; 3 Campb. 326; 1 Leigh's N. P. 135.
     3. Persons incapable of making contracts generally, may, nevertheless, make legal engagements for necessaries for which they, or those bound to support them, will be held responsible. The classes of persons who, although not bound by their usual contracts, can bind themselves or others for necessaries, are infants and married women.
     4.-1. Infants are allowed to make binding contracts whenever it is for their interest; when, therefore, they are unprovided with necessaries, which, Lord Coke says, include victuals, clothing, medical aid, and "good teaching and instruction, whereby he may profit himself afterwards," they may buy them, and their contracts will be binding. Co. Litt. 172 a. Necessaries for the infant's wife &lad children, are necessaries for himself. Str. 168; Com. Dig. Enfant, B 5; 1 Sid. 112 2 Stark. Ev. 725; 8 Day, 37 1 Bibb, 519; 2 Nott & McC. 524; 9 John. R. 141.; 16 Mass. 31; Bac. Ab. Infancy, I.
     5.-2. A wife is allowed to make contracts for necessaries, and her husband is generally responsible upon them, because his assent is presumed, and even if notice be given not to trust her, still he would be liable for all such necessaries as she stood in need of; but in this case, the creditor would be required to show she did stand in need of the articles furnished. 1 Salk. 118 Ld. Raym. 1006. But if the wife elopes, though it be not with an adulterer, ho is not chargeable even for necessaries; the very fact of the slopement and 'Separation, is sufficient to put persons on inquiry, and whoever gives credit to the wife afterwards, gives it at his peril. 1 Salk. 119; Str. 647; 1 Sid. 109; S. C. 1 Lec. 4; 12 John. R. 293; 3 Pick. R. 289; 2 Halst. 146; 11 John. R. 281; 2 Kent, Com. 123; 2 St. Ev. 696; Bac. Ab. Baron and Feme, H; Chit. Contr. Index, h.t.; 1 Hare & Wall. Sel. Dec. 104, 106; Ham. on Parties, 217.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.