Am I responsible for my spouse’s debts after they die?
When someone dies with an unpaid debt, it’s generally paid with the money or property left in the estate. 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 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 often 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 will not be paid. For example, when state law requires the estate to pay survivors first, there may not be any money left over to pay debts.
When you may be responsible for debts after a spouse’s death
If the debt is shared, you may be responsible, including if:
- You were a joint account owner
- You borrowed money as a co-signer on a loan
- You live in a community property state where spouses share responsibility for certain martial debts
- You live in a state with necessaries statutes where parents and spouses are responsible for certain necessary costs such as healthcare
If you’re the executor, administrator, or personal representative for your spouse’s estate, this does not make you responsible for paying the debt with your own money, unless the debt is also yours. Being a personal representative means you can use estate assets to settle your loved one’s debts, after making payments to survivors according to state law.
If you were an authorized user on a credit card account belonging to the person who died, that does not make you responsible for paying their credit card debt.
When a debt collector can contact you about a spouse’s debt
There are generally certain 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.
- You can 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 validate the debt in writing. The written validation notice will include a deadline for when you must submit your written dispute letter.
- You can 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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