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Dealing with Debt After Death: Your Rights & Responsibilities

If you’re mourning the death of a spouse or loved one, the last person you want to hear from is a debt collector. However, it’s not unusual for creditors to try to collect on the debts of deceased persons by contacting surviving spouses and family members—sometimes illegally. In many cases, you may not legally be responsible for that debt—but don’t expect the debt collectors to let you in on that.

Some debt collectors make a practice of telling people that they are legally responsible for debt that they are not, in fact, obligated to pay—expect the debt collectors to say anything to make you feel responsible to pay the debt. If debt collectors are harassing you about your deceased loved one’s debts, don’t panic—and don’t send them payments. First, do your research to find out whether or not you’re really responsible for that debt. Here are a few things to be aware of before sending the debt collectors any money that you may not legally owe.

Most of the time, debt isn’t inherited

Debt burdens don’t usually pass automatically from a deceased person to his or her family members. If you get a letter or phone call from a debt collector about your deceased spouse’s, sibling’s, or parent’s debts, it’s quite possible you’re not legally responsible to pay or it could be some sort of a scam . Do some research before sending anyone any money.

This isn’t always true in community property states

In “community property” states, all property in a marriage—including real estate property, assets, and income—is considered jointly owned. This includes credit accounts. In practice, this means that your spouse’s debts are automatically considered yours, and you may be partially or fully responsible for them even after the spouse’s death or a divorce. You can inherit debt from a deceased spouse in community property states, but not from a parent, sibling, or other family member.

Community property states include:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • Idaho
  • Texas
  • New Mexico
  • Wisconsin
  • Washington

Your loved one’s debt may affect your inheritance

If your parent or spouse leaves you a house or a significant inheritance in their will, you may legally be required to pay the person’s debt before collecting on your inheritance. If your loved one left you any property that’s subject to probate, it may be vulnerable to debt collectors.

However, that doesn’t mean that you personally are responsible for the debt. When someone dies, their estate is technically responsible for paying off any debt they leave behind. The executor of the estate must negotiate with creditors to pay the debts from the assets left behind. If the deceased person leaves no assets, property, or money behind, then the debts don’t get paid—and creditors usually don’t have the right to chase down surviving family members to collect on their losses.

If you co-signed a loan, you’re responsible for it

If you’re the co-signer on a loan for a friend, spouse, or family member who has since passed away, you will be considered legally responsible for paying it back. Co-signing a loan is basically guaranteeing that you’ll be responsible for paying it back if the debtor is unable to pay—including in cases of the debtor’s death.

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re legally responsible for the debt of a deceased loved one, do some research into the type of debt involved, as well as the laws in your state related to that debt. In most cases, surviving family members are not responsible for a deceased person’s debt—but there are exceptions. It’s always a good idea to consult with a bankruptcy or inheritance lawyer before making any decisions—and before sending creditors any money.