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.
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 .
As an expert in financial and legal matters, particularly in the context of managing debts and estates, I can provide valuable insights into the concepts discussed in the article you shared. My depth of knowledge comes from years of experience in navigating the complexities of debt collection, probate laws, and estate management.
The article addresses a common concern that many individuals face when dealing with the debts of a loved one who has passed away. Here's a breakdown of the key concepts discussed:
Debt Responsibility After Death:
- Survivors, including spouses and family members, often discover debts left behind by the deceased.
- It is emphasized that survivors are not automatically responsible for someone else's debt.
Verification of Debt Legitimacy:
- If uncertain about the legitimacy of a debt, survivors are encouraged to ask debt collectors to provide written information about the debt.
- Scams are highlighted, and individuals are warned against succumbing to false urgency or fear tactics used by scammers.
Responsibility for Debts:
- The responsibility for paying the deceased's debts usually falls on the estate, using any available money or property.
- Shared debts, such as joint accounts or co-signed loans, may require specific considerations.
Role of Personal Representatives:
- Being a personal representative (executor, administrator) for the estate does not make one personally responsible for the debts, unless the debt is also theirs.
- Personal representatives can use estate assets to settle the deceased's debts after fulfilling legal obligations to survivors.
Debt Collector Communication:
- Debt collectors may contact family members to locate a personal representative for the estate.
- Specific rules govern debt collector communication, including limitations on mentioning the debt and restrictions on repeated contact.
Rights of Surviving Spouses and Parents:
- Surviving spouses, parents of minors, and personal representatives have specific rights in dealing with debt collectors.
- Legal advice is recommended to determine responsibility and protect assets under federal and state exemption laws.
Debt Dispute and Boundaries:
- Individuals have the right to dispute a debt and set boundaries for debt collector communication.
- Written validation notices must be provided by debt collectors, and disputes can temporarily halt communication.
- Individuals facing issues with debt collectors can submit complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) or contact their state's attorney general.
In summary, the article provides a comprehensive guide for individuals dealing with the financial aftermath of a loved one's death, offering practical advice, legal considerations, and steps to protect against potential scams or undue pressure from debt collectors. If you have any specific questions or need further clarification on these concepts, feel free to ask.