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

If a relative dies, you aren't 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. Because I'm her only surviving heir, it's my understanding that I'm the only one who is entitled to the funds. 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. Here's why:

  • If you didn't cosign for any of the bills or credit accounts with your mother, then you don't have a personal, legal responsibility to pay off her debts. (But that doesn’t mean that the money in the savings account is yours.)
  • Your mother’s estate has an obligation to distribute any available funds to her creditors before giving her heirs the remaining amount.

So, it probably isn’t a good idea to start spending the money in the account.

Relatives Usually Aren't Responsible for the Deceased's Bills

In most cases, no one inherits someone else’s debt. You can’t be forced to pay a bill unless you and the creditor have a contract. As such, being a son or daughter isn't enough to make you liable for your mother’s unpaid obligations. While this applies to other relatives as well, a couple of exceptions exist.

Cosigning for the Debt

When you “cosign” on a credit contract with someone else, you each agree to be responsible for the debt. You promise to pay the debt if the other person doesn't, regardless of whether it's due to death or some other reason. Simply put, if you're 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. Both spouses are personally responsible for debts incurred during the marriage, regardless of which spouse's name is on the contract.

Bills Are Paid Before Heirs Get Money

The law requires the estate to pay the deceased person’s bills before distributing money to heirs. So, the money in your mom's account must first go to her creditors. If anything is left over, you get it. But if the account doesn't have enough money to pay off your mother's creditors, you're not responsible for any unpaid balances—unless one of the above exceptions applies.

Death and the Estate

Most people die leaving not only valuable property, such as a home or car, but unpaid bills as well. So, the law requires a fair and orderly handling of a deceased person’s affairs, which means everyone’s interests must be considered 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 a will exists, the “executor” is the person in charge of putting the estate in order. In contrast, it is the job of the “administrator” if no will exists. 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. The most important job, though, 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're unsure about your responsibilities following the death of a loved one, it's a good idea to consult with an experienced attorney.

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