I am my mother's only surviving heir. Do I have to pay her debts?

If a relative dies, you are not personally responsible for the deceased's debts. But the estate is.

Question

My  mother recently passed away and left a small amount of money in her savings account. Since I am her only surviving heir, it is my understanding that I am the only one who is entitled to the money. I recently found out that she left balances on two credit cards, however, and now debt collectors are calling me saying I have to pay off her bills. The problem is that if I do, there won’t be anything left, which doesn’t seem fair. I don’t want to get in trouble, of course, so I need to know – is it really my responsibility to pay her debts?

Answer

The answer is yes…and no. If you did not cosign for any of the bills or credit accounts with your mother, then you do not have a personal, legal responsibility to pay off her debts. This doesn’t mean that the money in the savings account is yours, however, so it probably isn’t a good idea to start spending it. Your mother’s estate has an obligation to distribute any available funds to her creditors before giving her heirs the remaining amount. Continue reading below to find out how this works.

Relatives Usually Are Not Responsible for the Deceased's Bills

In most cases, no one inherits someone else’s debt. This is because you can’t be forced to pay a bill unless there is a contract between you and the creditor. As such, being a son or daughter is not enough to make you liable for your mother’s unpaid obligations. While this applies to other relatives as well, there are a couple exceptions:

Cosigning for the Debt.  When you “cosign” on a credit contract with someone else, you each agree to be responsible for the debt. This means that you promise to pay the debt if the other person does not, regardless of whether it is due to death or some other reason. Simply put, if you are a cosigner on any account with your mother, your responsibility to pay the debt survives her death.

Community Property Exception.  In community property states, the responsibility to pay your spouse's debts continues after the death of one spouse as well. This is because both spouses are personally responsible for debts incurred during the marriage, regardless of which spouses’ name is on the contract. (Learn more about  when you owe a spouse’s debt.)

Bills Are Paid Before Heirs Get Money

The law requires the estate to pay the deceased person’s bills before distributing money to the heirs. So the money in your mom's account must first go to her creditors. If there is anything left, you get it. If, however, there isn’t enough money to pay off your mother's creditors, you are not responsible for any unpaid balances -- unless one of the above exceptions applies. Here is why.

Death and the Estate

Most people die leaving not only valuable property, such as a home or car, but unpaid bills as well. Because of this, the law requires a fair and orderly handling of a deceased person’s affairs, which means everyone’s interests must be taken into account when settling any unfinished financial business. To make sure this happens, a person’s property automatically becomes a part of that person’s “estate” upon death.

Responsibilities of the Executor

When there is a will, the “executor” is the person in charge of putting the estate in order. In contrast, it is the job of the “administrator” if there is no will. This person’s primary duties include:

  • locating the estate’s assets
  • liquidating, or selling, property
  • paying outstanding bills, and
  • distributing any leftover money to the heirs.

The executor has other duties as well, including deciding whether probate is necessary, placing a value on the assets, notifying creditors, setting up a bank account, and paying the estate’s ongoing expenses and taxes. (Find out more about  the job of an executor.) The most important job, however, involves treating the creditors fairly before disbursing any remaining funds.

Consequences of Not Paying Bills

Determining which debts must be paid after death can be complicated and differs from state to state. If you are unsure about your responsibilities after the death of a loved one, it is a good idea to consult with an experienced attorney. (Find out when you might want to  hire a probate lawyer.)

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