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You’re not alone

When a loved one dies, you may learn about debts they owed before they died. You may not recognize these debts. If you are a surviving spouse or family member, you may even wonder if that debt now belongs to you. This is a very common experience among survivors.

Take your time

If you’re not sure that a debt is legitimate, you can always ask the debt collector to send information about the debt, in writing. Scammers are great at making people feel a false sense of urgency or fear, and they love to target people during hard times, like when you’ve lost a loved one. If anyone ever pressures you for personal or financial information over the phone, just hang up!

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. If there is no 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.

You may be responsible if it is a shared debt. This depends on your situation. For instance:

  • If you were an authorized user on a credit card account belonging to the person who died, you are not responsible for the debt.
  • If you were joint account owners, then you may share responsibility for the debt with the other account owner’s estate.
  • If you borrowed the money as a co-signer, you are responsible for the debt.
  • In community property states, spouses share responsibility for certain marital debts.
  • In a small number of states with necessaries statutes, parents and spouses could be responsible for certain necessary costs such as healthcare.

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

Here’s one consumer experience with debt collectors. After the consumer submitted this complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the debt collection company stopped trying to collect a bill that belonged to his son.

In this guide, we provide specific complaint examples that highlight relevant issues. Please note that each narrative is specific to the individual consumer who submitted the complaint and not necessarily representative of all consumers’ experiences.

"I am an older man. My adult son died last year. He had cable, phone and internet in his name and paid the service monthly. When he died, I turned off the cable service at his address immediately and told them he was deceased. I gave them my name and told them I was his father. The cable company continued to send bills in my dead son's name and my name. I recently received a bill from a collection company in my name for the cable bill stating I owed several hundred dollars. I have not subscribed or ordered cable from this company. Please help me with this financial injustice."

Let debt collectors know that your loved one has died

Explain the situation. When a debt collector reaches out for payment on a debt belonging to your loved one, they may not know about the death. You can let them know. You can also talk with a lawyer. A lawyer can help you protect your money and property from debt collectors under federal and state exemption laws. You may qualify for free legal advice or representation.

If there is a personal representative managing your loved one’s estate, you can give the debt collector their contact information and also talk with an attorney.

KEY TERM: Personal representative

A personal representative is an estate executor or administrator, or someone who has legal authority to pay debts from the estate. A personal representative’s job is to make payments to survivors and handle the debts of someone who has died.

Here’s what another consumer said in their complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. After receiving this complaint, the debt collection agency stopped trying to collect another person’s debt from them.

"I held a power of attorney for a man residing in a nursing home. After he died, the nursing home hounded me to pay the debt. Even though I wrote to them and told them that I was not liable, they referred the matter to a collection agency that did not even list the real debtor."

When you’re a personal representative for the estate

If you’re the executor, administrator, or personal representative for your loved one’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.

When the debt collector is looking for a personal representative

Sometimes, debt collectors contact family members to try and locate a personal representative for the estate of the person who died.

If you are not a surviving spouse, parent of a minor child who died, or personal representative for the estate, here’s what debt collectors can and can’t do:

  • Debt collectors can contact you once to learn where to find a personal representative.
    • They are not allowed to mention the debt at all, or even reveal that they are calling about a debt. Instead, they might say they’re “seeking to identify and locate the person who is authorized to act on behalf of the deceased consumer's estate” or to “identify and locate the person handling the financial affairs of the deceased consumer.”
    • They generally can’t contact you again unless you ask them to do so. They can only contact you again if the information you gave them turns out to be wrong or incomplete and they reasonably believe that you now have correct or complete contact information. Then the debt collector can contact you again to get it.
  • Debt collectors are not allowed to suggest that you might be responsible for the debt if you are not.
    • When someone dies with an unpaid debt, it should be paid according to state probate laws, which usually means they are paid by the estate. If there’s no estate or the estate can’t pay, then the debt generally will not be paid.

If you are the spouse of a person who died, parent of a child under 18 who died, or a personal representative for someone’s estate

Debt collectors can mention the debt to you, and you have the right to learn more about it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re personally responsible for paying it. 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 for the debt, a lawyer can help you understand and protect your money and property from collectors under federal and state exemption laws.

Get it 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 contact you. They usually do this with 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 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 notice will include a deadline for disputing the debt.

You can set boundaries. You can tell debt collectors how to contact you , and how not to contact you. You can also tell debt collectors not to contact you at certain times or places. This includes whether you want to be contacted 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.

Submit a complaint

If you’re having a problem with a debt collector, you can submit a complaint with the CFPB online or by calling (855) 411-CFPB (2372). You can also contact your state's attorney general .

Help is available

When a loved one dies, you may face difficult decisions. This can be especially hard to manage when you’re dealing with grief. There are experts who can help. Some do this for free or at a low cost.

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 legal aid.

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.

You can use the Eldercare Locator to find services in your area or call 1-800-677-1116.