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Am I Liable For My Deceased Spouse's Debts?

If a credit card is in my deceased spouse's name, am I responsible for paying the balance?

If a credit card is in my deceased spouse's name, am I responsible for paying the balance?

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Updated: Sep 3, 2014

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Highlights

  • Understand that most debts are not forgiven when the debtor dies.
  • Examine how being in a community property state affects you.
  • Look into all options for resolving debt, if you are stuck with the responsibility to pay it.

My condolences on your loss. If you remember anything I am about to write, please let it be this: Do not believe legal advice from collection agents. The legal advice collection agents tell people is usually incomplete or wrong, and is always self-serving.

Deceased Spouse’s Debt

Some people assume a decedent’s debt is forgiven or possibly written off by creditors. The law does not work that way, with the exception of federal student loans. However, spouses or other relatives are not responsible for the decedent’s debt automatically, either. Many collection agents take advantage of a debtor’s grief and ignorance of the law to imply the family must pay the decedent’s debt, but that may not be the case.

Your State's Probate Laws

Learn more about your state’s to understand your rights and liabilities as the spouse of a recently deceased person.

When a person dies with a will, the will controls the financial affairs of the decedent’s assets, which is called the “estate.” A will distributes assets, not debts. However, before any assets can be distributed to the heirs, all known debts must be paid by the executor. Therefore, the executor will sell assets in the estate to pay for any debts that remain. Only after the debts are paid will the remaining assets be distributed among the beneficiaries of the will.

Community Property States
Source: Bills.com
Alaska*
Idaho
New Mexico
* Optional

If a person dies without a will, this is known as “dying intestate” in lawyer-speak. In this situation, the court appoints an administrator to handle the distribution of the decedent’s assets according to the laws of the state. As with dying with a will, assets are distributed after debts are paid.

Here is a key point: If the estate is insolvent the creditor has no legal right to collect the debt from family members, children, or friends. There is no feudal debt bondage that ensnares an entire family, at least not in the US. In most states, the creditor cannot collect from the spouse either. However, in community property states, the question becomes more complicated.

Deceased Spouse’s Debt in Community Property States

Generally in community property states, debt incurred by a spouse for the benefit of the family is considered a “community” debt, and therefore the spouse is responsible for repaying that debt.

Did the credit card debt here benefit the community? We cannot answer that question. You may or may not have liability for this credit card debt debt based on your state’s community property laws. Consult with a lawyer in your state to analyze the debt.

Let us say for the sake of argument you do not have liability for this credit card debt. You cannot stop here and call it a day. You must review your state’s doctrine of necessaries rules, too.

Doctrine of Necessaries

Many, but not all states have a “doctrine of necessaries” rule. The doctrine on necessaries rule requires spouses to pay for each other’s necessities of life. The doctrine also applies to parents of minor children.

If your state has a doctrine of necessaries rule for spousal debt, you may have liability for your spouse’s “necessities” debt, even if you were completely unaware of the expense. See the Bills.com article to learn the rules for your state.

Deceased Spouse’s Credit Card Bills

Do not assume you have liability for your deceased spouse’s credit card debt. Consult with an lawyer in your state to understand your rights and liabilities in your particular circumstances.

Let Debt Coach Help You

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I hope this information helps you Find. Learn & Save.

Best,

Bill

132 Comments

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  • SE
    Mar, 2014
    Stayce
    If a spouse dies unexpectedly, and there is no life insurance or will, what happens to an outstanding vehicle loan if it's only in the decedent's name? Can the surviving spouse assume the loan payment and keep the vehicle? Or does the vehicle revert back to the bank's possession?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Apr, 2014
      Bill
      Consult with a lawyer in your state who has probate law experience for a definitive answer to your question.

      Generally, when a spouse dies intestate (without a will) the surviving spouse gets 50% of the estate, and the heir(s) get the other 50%. In a case where the decedent is alone on a contract, unless the loan or lease states otherwise, the surviving spouse does not have any special right or liability to assume the loan or lease. The surviving spouse can contact the lender and ask to assume the loan, but the lender has the right to say no.

      When a decedent dies without a will, the court appoints an administrator to manage and distribute the assets and pay any liabilities. The administrator should discuss a voluntary repossession with the lender or sale of the vehicle.
      0 Votes

  • AB
    Mar, 2014
    Andy
    what about in the case of a student loan whereby the student has defaulted the loan that was guaranteed by a grandparent. The guarantor dies with an estate. Is the estate responsible for the debt or will the responsibility move back to the student in default?
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Mar, 2014
      Bill
      There's no one-size-fits-all answer here. The family needs to consult with a probate lawyer about the estate, and in particular about any of the decedent's liabilities including the delinquent student loan.
      0 Votes

  • MD
    Jan, 2014
    Maddy
    My significant other has been recently diagnosed terminal cancer and given a few months to live. He doesn't have any assets, our house is in my name only. He also doesn't have any credit card debt or anything like that. What he does have is a large debt for back child support in another state for a child that he didn't know existed for the first 13 years of her life. Apart from that, he owes a few thousand in back taxes, and a couple thousand in medical bills that accrued in the time between his diagnosis and when he started getting disability /Medicare. So, we don't have any joint debts and have never been legally married, though we've been together for 10+ years and have 2 young children together. He wants us to get married so that I will be quality receive social security survivors benefits when he passes. We've talked about getting married for years, but now there's a sense of urgency involved. My only concern would be that I would be responsible for his debt after he dies. It all would be from before we were married, so I wouldn't think so, but I've been getting conflicting opinions on the matter. We live in Oregon, which is not a community property state if that makes a difference. Any advice would be appreciated!
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Jan, 2014
      Bill
      Your concerns are well founded. Consult with an Oregon lawyer who has probate experience to learn what liabilities you will have should you marry. In particular, ask about Oregon's doctrine of necessaries (sometimes called doctrine of necessities) law to learn if a spouse has liability for his or her deceased spouse's debts.
      0 Votes

  • MN
    Dec, 2013
    Michelle
    My husband passed away 6 months ago. We had been separated for 7 years. When he passed away he lived in CO and I lived in GA. Now a collection agency debt is showing up on my credit report from a doctors office in CO. Am I responsible for this bill? Thank you for your time.
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Dec, 2013
      Bill
      I do not think the collection agent has a legal leg to stand on in demanding you pay your husband's medical debt, although only an attorney can give you legal advice.

      A little background. Under the common law, a husband had the legal responsibility to pay for the care of his wife. This is called the "doctrine of necessaries" or "doctrine of necessities." Many states modified the doctrine of necessaries to make the wife equally responsible for the care of her husband. Over time, states wrote variations on the doctrine of necessaries to give spouses liability for the cost of each other's medical care and other necessities of life.

      You mentioned you reside in Georgia. The Georgia Legislature repealed the doctrine in 1979 for spousal liability. Therefore, a Georgia court will not support the collection agent's claim you have liability for the debt. But what about a Colorado court where your husband resided?

      In Colorado, the statute making a husband and wife jointly liable for family expenses does not apply where the husband and wife have separated and live apart (See Colo. Rev. Stat. § 14-6-110 (1995); O'Brien v. Galley-Stockton Shoe Co., 173 P. 544, 544 (Colo. 1918)).

      My advice? Send the collection agent a cease communications notice. Then consult with a lawyer in your state should you receive a notice the collection agent filed a lawsuit against you.
      1 Votes

  • CA
    Sep, 2013
    Clara
    My husband passed away 7 years ago from lung cancer. When he purchased the house he did not put my name on the deed. When he passed I was able to transfer the deed to my name with a will he left behind. All the gas and utility bills were and still are in his name only. I have been paying these bills but I can no longer keep up with them. When he passed these bills were sky high because he was unemployed before he passed and had an oxygen machine which made the electric bill excessive. I have never been able to pay what was owed when he passed I only pay the new charges each month. For example my light bill is 20,000 and each month I receive a bill for new charges so I pay the new charges but not the $20,000. I have young kids at home and we have already went through multiple occasions of no light or gas or hot water. Is there a way I can call national grid and coned for them to cancel these accounts and then I can open a new account in my name to start over? Please help me.
    0 Votes

    • BA
      Sep, 2013
      Bill
      It is unfortunate you did not ask for legal advice when your spouse passed away 7 years ago to resolve his debts using your state's probate laws and procedures.

      I am not aware of any grant or similar program for people in your circumstances. Consult with a lawyer in your state who has consumer law or bankruptcy experience about your options to resolve the debt.
      0 Votes