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As an estate attorney, I am often asked "am I responsible for my deceased relatives debts?"

The answer is almost always "no." Unless you are a joint debtor or co-signor, you are not responsible for your deceased relative’s debts.

Who is responsible for my deceased relative’s debts?

If your relative died with assets (money or property), then his or her estate will be responsible for the debts. The executor or administrator of the estate will need to negotiate and pay the decedent’s debts to the extent that there are sufficient assets to pay. If your relative died with no assets, then the debts do not get paid. You are not legally nor morally obligated to pay your relative’s debts with your own money.

What if the deceased relative is my spouse, parent or sibling?

It does not matter how closely the person was related to you. If your husband or wife dies owing money on a loan or credit card that was solely in his or her name, you are not personally liable for the debt. The same applies if the decedent is your mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, etc.

Would I ever be responsible for my deceased relative’s debts?

The answer is probably not. However, you may responsible for a deceased relative’s debt if you somehow contractually obligated yourself with the creditor. For example, you signed a loan application as a co-signor or jointly applied for credit with your relative.

The credit card company or collection agency says I’m liable for the debt. Is this true?

The credit card company or collection agency just wants to collect money from any source they can. They don’t care who pays as long as someone does. Their agent may say whatever it takes to make you feel bound to pay the debt. Increasingly, collection agencies are specializing in collecting decedent’s debts because they have found that it’s easier to collect from the dead than from the living.

Collection agents go so far as to learn about the five stages of grief in the hopes of catching you at your most vulnerable. Staff are also educated how to utilize empathic or active listening which is a nicer name for a method of speaking gently and seeming to offer solace while remaining vigilant for any shred of information they can use to collect payment.

No one is safe from that repugnant call not even the newly widowed or the grieving son, the wealthy or the poor. The fact is that payment oft-times comes from individuals who have no legal obligation for the decedent’s debts. Relatives and friends often pay their loved one’s debts from a sense of duty or pride or responsibility or dignity and sometimes guilt.

The bottom line...

If you start getting calls from creditors about debts seemingly owed by a deceased spouse, parent or other loved one, don’t take for granted that the caller is telling you the truth. No matter how nice or compassionate that caller sounds, don’t commit to anything. Instead, tell the caller that you are going to speak with your lawyer about your obligations and end the conversation.

Author: Rudolf J. Karvay

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