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Am I Liable For My Deceased Spouse's Debts?

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Mark Cappel
UpdatedDec 8, 2022
Key Takeaways:
  • 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.
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?

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 probate laws 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
Alaska*
Arizona
California
Idaho
Louisiana
Nevada
New Mexico
Texas
Washington
Wisconsin
* Optional

Source: Bills.com

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 Doctrine of Necessaries Rules For Each State 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

Unsure how to handle your debt? Let the Bills.com Debt Coach tool give you a customized report on your debt resolution options. It’s free!

For additional information, see the Federal Trade Commission documents Paying the Debts of a Deceased Relative: Who Is Responsible? and FTC Issues Final Policy Statement on Collecting Debts of the Deceased.

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

Best,

Bill

Bills.com

Did you know?

Debt is used to buy a home, pay for bills, buy a car, or pay for a college education. According to the NY Federal Reserve total household debt as of Q2 2022 was $16.15 trillion. Auto loan debt was $1.50 trillion and credit card was $0.89 trillion.

According to data gathered by Urban.org from a sample of credit reports, about 26% of people in the US have some kind of debt in collections. The median debt in collections is $1.739. Student loans and auto loans are common types of debt. Of people holding student debt, approximately 10% had student loans in collections. The national Auto/Retail debt delinquency rate was 4%.

Each state has its rate of delinquency and share of debts in collections. For example, in Utah credit card delinquency rate was 2%, and the median credit card debt was $454.

To maintain an excellent credit score it is vital to make timely payments. However, there are many circumstances that lead to late payments or debt in collections. The good news is that there are a lot of ways to deal with debt including debt consolidation and debt relief solutions.

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10 Comments

DDiana Smith, Apr, 2020

I live in Oregon. My husband passed away Nov 2018. My name wasn't on any of his credit cards or checking account. He had his disability money in it. I had to fill out an affidavit and file it at the court to get his money out of checking account. Before that my son called his credit cards told them my husbnd is deceased. They said I'm not liable to pay anything because my name was not on his accounts. The money was in his checking for about 3 weeks. When I got the money out I asked if I owe anything. The bank teller said no. Now the d m c service wants me to pay them $ 4355 back. I don't have it. I used it to live on. Can they take it out of my taxes or my widow benefits?

DDaniel Cohen, Apr, 2020

Diana, it isn't clear to me who says you owe them the $4355. Is "dmc" a governmet agency or affiliated with the governmetn. I don't recognize the initials as a company or government agency (though they are my personal initials!). Please explain who they are and what they are asserting in their claim.

Did money they are seeking  come in after your husband died? Did his estate go through probate?

SStayce, Mar, 2014
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?
BBill, Apr, 2014
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.
AAndy Benton, Mar, 2014
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?
BBill, Mar, 2014
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.
MMaddy Dennis, Jan, 2014
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!
BBill, Jan, 2014
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.