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Am I responsible for my spouse’s debts after they die?

If your spouse dies, you’re generally not responsible for their debt, unless it’s a shared debt, or you are responsible under state law.

Don’t assume you have to pay

You are generally not responsible for someone else’s debt. When someone dies with an unpaid debt, if the debt needs to be paid, it should be paid from any money or property they left behind according to state law. This is called their estate.

When there is no estate

If there is no money or property left in an estate, or the estate can’t pay, then the debt generally goes unpaid. For example, when state law requires the estate to pay survivors first, there might not be any money left over to pay debts.

When could I be responsible for debts after a spouse’s death?

You might be responsible for your spouse’s debt after their death if the debt is shared. This can happen when:

  • You are a co-signer on your spouse’s loan
  • You are a joint account holder on a credit card (not just an authorized user on the account)
  • You live in a community property state, which means you share responsibility for certain debts created during the marriage
  • You live in a state with necessaries statutes, which are laws that say parents and spouses are responsible for paying certain necessary costs such as healthcare

If you are the executor or administrator, or personal representative for your spouse’s estate, debt collectors can contact you to discuss their debts. Debt collectors are not allowed to say or hint that you are responsible for paying the debts with your own money.

When a debt collector can contact you about a spouse’s debt

There are generally rules for when a debt collector can contact you about a debt. For example, if you are the spouse, debt collectors can mention the debt to you, and you have the right to learn more about it. But this doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for paying it. And if you’re not responsible for the debt, debt collectors are also not allowed to say that you are.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Talk with a lawyer. A lawyer can help you figure out if you are responsible for paying a debt. If you are responsible, a lawyer can help you understand your protections, including exemptions you may have under federal and state laws. A lawyer can also help you determine how best to deal with debt collectors.
  • Get the details of the debt in writing. In most circumstances, the collector must give you details about the debt during your first conversation or within 5 days of when they first contacted you. If the information is provided in writing, it’s known as a written validation notice. If the debt collector knows that you’re the surviving spouse, parent of a minor who died, or a personal representative but they still refuse to give you details about the debt, then you could be dealing with a scam.
  • Dispute the debt. If you believe you don’t owe the debt or it’s not yours to pay, you should dispute it. If you receive a validation notice and dispute the debt in writing within 30 days, the debt collector must stop contacting you until they verify the debt in writing. The written validation notice will include a deadline for when you must submit your written dispute letter.
  • Set boundaries for how debt collectors contact you. You can tell debt collectors how to contact you . You can also tell debt collectors not to contact you at certain times or places or by phone, email, text message, or mail. If you don’t want to hear from the debt collector again, you can also send the collector a written request to stop contacting you.

Understand how the CFPB's Debt Collection Rule impacts you

Help is available

These rules can be hard to navigate, especially when you’ve recently lost a loved one, but help is available.

  • Get legal help. Lawyers can help you understand your rights and make a plan. You may qualify for free legal aid, based on your income. Contact your local bar association or find a legal aid office in your area.
  • Find local services and supports. The Eldercare Locator connects older Americans and their caregivers with trustworthy local support resources, including free legal aid for many older adults .

Still having trouble with debt collection?

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