Can I be personally responsible for paying my deceased relative's debts and can a debt collector contact me about those debts?

Answer:

In most cases you will not be responsible to pay off your deceased relative’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 you are a co-signer on a loan, then as co-signer you owe the debt.

• If you are a joint account holder on a credit card, then as the joint account holder you owe the debt. A joint account holder is different from an “authorized user.” An authorized user is not usually responsible for the amount owed.

• If the person was your spouse and your state law requires a spouse to pay that debt.

Unless an exception applies, you do not have to take personal responsibility for the debt of the deceased person. You are not obligated to pay their debt from your own assets. 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 relative’s debt?

It depends. Here is when you can be contacted:

  • If you were a cosigner or otherwise legally obligated for your deceased relative’s debts.
  • A collector can contact you to try and locate the executor or administrator of the estate, but they should not discuss or mention the debt to you.  
  • If you are the executor or administrator of the deceased person’s estate, collectors can contact you to discuss the deceased person's debts.  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.

If you are the spouse, executor, or administrator, and want a debt collector to stop contacting you about the deceased person’s debts, you have the right to tell them to stop contacting you. To exercise this right, you must send a letter to the debt collector stating that you do not want the debt collector to contact you again. A request during the telephone call is not enough. Make a copy of your letter for your files. Generally it’s a good idea to send the original letter by certified mail, and pay for a “return receipt” so you can document what the collector received and when. Once a debt collector receives your letter, it may not contact you again except to:

  • Tell you there will be no further contact
  • Advise you that it or the creditor may take other specific actions it is legally allowed to take, such as a lawsuit against you

The CFPB has prepared sample letters that a consumer could use to respond to a debt collector who is trying to collect a debt along with tips on how to use them.  The sample letters may help you to get information, stop or limit any further communication, or protect some of your rights. 

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 estate or probate law, consumer law, 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.

Keep in mind that even if you stop debt collectors from communicating with you, the estate of the deceased may still be responsible for the debt. The debt collector may file a claim against the estate like any other creditor.

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