Last week we presented the case of offsetting corresponding fees: Mr. Cooper’s fee for electrical work he had done at Mr. Singer’s office against Mrs. Singer’s fee for playing music at the Coopers’ bas mitzvah.
“I am entitled to my fee for playing music, regardless of any debt my husband has to you,” claimed Mrs. Singer. “I keep a separate business account.”
“But your husband is halachically entitled to your earnings, so essentially I owe him,” claimed Mr. Cooper. “I can offset the debts!”
Rabbi Dayan explained that there is an unresolved question as to whether a husband is entitled to his wife’s income earned through exceptional exertion, so that if the wife holds these earnings, she can keep them. Some contemporary poskim maintain that this includes earnings from work out of the house in the evenings.
“Since I can keep these earnings, you can’t offset them with my husband’s debt,” argued Mrs. Singer.
“But you can’t make me pay, since there is halachic doubt,” countered Mr. Cooper.
The two asked Rabbi Dayan:
“Can Mr. Cooper use his payment to Mrs. Singer to offset what he owes to Mr. Singer?”
“The Gemara (Kesubos 110a) addresses the issue of mutual obligations. When the payments are halachically similar, they cancel each other. However, when there are halachic differences between the payments, Shulchan Aruch rules that each party collects his appropriate payment” (C.M. 85:3).
“Thus, if the Singers share a single account, Mr. Cooper could certainly offset his obligation to Mrs. Singer with Mr. Singer’s debt to him. It is pointless to pay $600 to the joint account, and then withdraw $600 from it. If Mrs. Singer and/or Mr. Cooper need to issue or receive receipts for bookkeeping purposes, they can be recorded as cash payments. Mr. Singer’s debt should be marked ‘paid’ in tandem.
“However, if Mrs. Singer keeps a separate business account for her music services, the issue requires clarification.
“Were we to rule that Mr. Singer is entitled to all his wife’s earnings, including the fee for her music at the Coopers’ bas mitzvah, we would similarly say that the two debts cancel each other, since ultimately the fee goes to Mr. Singer.
“However, we mentioned last week that there is an unresolved dispute regarding a wife’s earnings through her exertion. Since Mrs. Singer has a regular job, some contemporary poskim view her additional earnings from playing music at simchos at night as earnings through exertion, so that it is questionable whether Mr. Singer is entitled to them.
“In a case that one party’s obligation is definite and the other’s is questionable, Ketzos HaChoshen (75:5) reasons that we treat each obligation independently in regard to the doubt. Thus, in our case, since it is questionable whether Mr. Singer is entitled to his wife’s earnings at the bas mitzvah, we treat each obligation independently. Mrs. Singer can claim kim li that she can keep this fee for herself, so that Mr. Cooper cannot offset it with Mr. Singer’s debt to him.
“However, Nesivos Hamishpat (75:5) reasons that a counter obligation is considered a form of payment. Thus, in this case, Mr. Cooper can claim kim li that Mr. Singer is entitled to his wife’s earnings, so that he paid her fee through Mr. Singer’s obligation to him.
“Bottom line, Mr. Cooper can offset Mrs. Singer’s fee with Mr. Singer’s obligation,” concluded Rabbi Dayan. “According to many poskim, Mr. Singer is halachically entitled to his wife’s earning even outside the house. Even according to those who question whether he is entitled to them, Mr. Cooper – who is currently in possession of his money – can claim kim li and refrain from paying Mrs. Singer, offsetting her fee with Mr. Singer’s debt.”
Verdict: A person can offset his obligation to a wife with the husband’s debt to him when the couple shares an account. Even when the wife keeps a separate account, the person can offset it when there is a question whether the husband is entitled to these earnings.