Am I responsible for debts from my deceased spouse?

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In addition to intense grief, the death of a spouse also comes with countless new responsibilities. From life insurance claims to funeral preparations to dealing with your deceased spouse’s will and assets, the to-do list can seem never-ending.

Talking to debt collectors is probably one of the last things you want to face when you’re grieving. Yet at some point, you may start to receive collection letters or phone calls that you need to address. In most cases, you are not responsible to pay off the debts of your deceased spouse, but you’ll want to be prepared for the scenarios in which you are.

Am I responsible for debts from my deceased spouse?

Most Americans owe some outstanding debt when they die. So, if your spouse left debt behind debts when they passed away, it may give you some comfort to know that the situation is not at all unusual. A 2017 study revealed that 73 percent of consumers owed outstanding debt at the time of their death. The average amount of debt these people owed was just under $62,000.

The good news is that in most cases, you are not personally liable for your deceased spouse’s debts. Both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) confirm that family members usually do not have to pay the debt of deceased relatives using their personal assets. This includes credit card debt, student loans and more.

Exceptions to the rule

Here’s the not-so-good news: Under certain circumstances, you might be on the hook financially for debts your spouse incurred while they were alive. For example, you might be responsible for your late spouse’s debts in the following situations:

  • You were a joint borrower. Did you co-sign for a joint loan or credit card with your now-late spouse? If so, the lender or card issuer will still expect you to repay those funds after your spouse dies. In the case of a credit card, be careful not to confuse joint accounts with a card on which you’re an authorized user only. Authorized users aren’t responsible for credit card debt — whether the primary card holder is living or decreased.
  • You live in a community property state. In a few states, the law may require you (as a surviving spouse) to use any community property you owned with your late spouse to cover outstanding debts. Community property rules state that a debt either spouse incurs during a marriage is considered a joint debt. Community property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In Alaska, community property is optional.
  • State law requires you to pay. Some states may require you, as a surviving spouse, to pay for certain types of debt, such as medical expenses.
  • You’re the executor of estate for your deceased spouse. As executor of state, you might have to pay the debts of a late spouse (even in non-community property states) if you owned any joint property and failed to follow state probate laws.

Your deceased spouse might still owe the debt

It’s important to understand that even if you’re not personally responsible for your late spouse’s debt, the bill won’t simply go away. Your spouse (or rather, their estate) might still be responsible for the debt after death.

If a creditor can collect the money it’s owed from your deceased spouse’s estate, it may have the right to do so — leaving less money for beneficiaries after the fact. So in certain cases, you might have to tap into assets or sell them (i.e., bank accounts, real estate, stocks, etc.) to cover unpaid debts.

Certain estate funds and assets may be exempt from creditors as well. Life insurance policies, disability benefits, employer-sponsored plans and retirement accounts, for example, are often off-limits as long as a beneficiary is designated. Also, if the nonexempt funds from your late spouse’s estate are exhausted, any remaining creditors might have to accept a loss (unless one of the exceptions above applies to your situation).

Final considerations

Even when you’re not legally liable for a deceased spouse’s debt, debt collectors may still try to pressure you into paying. But if you don’t live in a community property state (and don’t believe there are any other reasons you could be held responsible), you can tell the debt collector that you know you are not responsible.

Next, you can provide the collector with a copy of your spouse’s death certificate and ask the company in writing to stop contacting you. It’s best to send this information via certified mail and keep a copy of your request for your records.

Once you ask a debt collector to stop contacting you, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act protects you. Any future communication regarding the debt should stop, unless the debt collector decides to sue you and is informing you of that fact. If a collector continues to contact you after you ask it to stop in writing, you can report the company to the Federal Trade Commission or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

In the end, trying to sort through a deceased spouse’s debts can be confusing and stressful. Your best bet is to schedule a consultation with a probate and estate lawyer who can answer questions about your individual situation and explain your rights.

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