Can I be responsible to pay off the debts of my deceased spouse?
In most cases you will not be responsible to pay off your deceased spouse's debts. As a general rule, no one else is obligated to pay the debt of a person who has died. There are some exceptions and the exceptions vary by state.
As a general rule, no one else is obligated to pay the debt of a person who has died. Here are some exceptions to that general rule:
- If there was a co-signer on a loan, the co-signer owes the debt.
- If there is a joint account holder on a credit card, the joint account holder owes the debt. A joint account holder is different from an “authorized user.” An authorized user is not usually responsible for the amount owed.
- If state law requires a spouse to pay a particular type of debt
- If state law requires the executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate to pay an outstanding bill out of property that was jointly owned by the surviving and deceased spouse.
- In community property states and depending on that state’s law, the surviving spouse may be required to use community property to pay debts of a deceased spouse. The community property states include Alaska (if a special agreement is signed), Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.
Unless there is an exception, you do not have to take responsibility for the debt of the deceased person. You are not obligated to do this and the creditor or debt collector cannot use unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices to get you to assume responsibility.
Can a debt collector contact me about my deceased spouse’s debt?
It depends. Here is when you can be contacted:
- A debt collector is allowed to contact the deceased person’s spouse looking for the person authorized to pay the deceased spouse’s debts, such as the executor or administrator of the estate. Although the debt collector may communicate with you about the debt, it is not allowed to represent that you are responsible for paying the debt with your own assets unless there are specific circumstances that make you legally obligated for the debt, such as if you were a cosigner or joint accountholder.
- If you were a cosigner or otherwise legally obligated for your deceased spouse’s debts.
- If you live in a community property state, you may be responsible for paying the debt with community assets, but you should consult an attorney to understand your rights and obligations.
- If you are the executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate, collectors can contact you to discuss the deceased person's debts and payments from the estate. Collectors may not state or imply that you are personally responsible for paying the person’s debts from your own assets, unless there are specific circumstances, such as being a co-signer, that make you legally obligated for the debt.
- If you are not the executor or administrator, you may wish to tell the debt collector who the executor is.
You have the right to tell a debt collector to stop contacting you. This right applies to the spouse of a deceased person and the executor or administrator of the estate. Also, under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), debt collectors may not harass, oppress, or abuse you or any third parties they contact. If you want a debt collector to stop contacting you about a debt, or to only contact you at certain times or through an attorney, we have prepared sample letters that you can use to communicate with a debt collector.
Keep in mind that even if you stop debt collectors from communicating with you, the deceased person’s estate may still be responsible for the debt. The debt collector may file a claim against the estate like any other creditor.
If I don't pay my deceased spouse's debts using my own funds, will it affect my credit?
Generally, no. The creditor or debt collector should not report your spouse’s debts to a credit reporting company under your name unless you: were a joint account holder; co-signed for the loan, account, or debt; or live in a community property state. If a debt collector improperly reports your spouse’s debts under your name to a credit reporting company, you should contact that company and dispute the information.
You may want to talk to a lawyer if you are being contacted by a creditor or debt collector about a deceased person’s debts or if you have questions about whether you are responsible for those debts. To find an attorney, you can contact a lawyer referral service in your area and ask for an attorney with experience in consumer law, estate or probate matters, debt collection defense, or the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Some attorneys may offer free services, or charge a reduced fee. There may also be legal aid offices or legal clinics in your area who will offer their services for free if you meet their criteria. Servicemembers should consult their local JAG office.