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Am I Responsible for My Deceased Spouse’s Debt?

Rebecca Lake
·6 min read
Semi-transparent hand on another hand
Semi-transparent hand on another hand

The death of a spouse can be emotionally and mentally trying on many levels. There may also be financial stress if a spouse leaves behind credit card debt, outstanding loans or other monetary obligations. You may be wondering: Am I responsible for my spouse’s debt after death? In most cases, the answer is no, you’re not obligated to pay off the debts of another person. But there are some scenarios where that’s the exception, rather than the rule. A financial advisor can help you sort through what is and is not your responsibility and how to best discharge the responsibilities that are yours.

Am I Responsible for My Deceased Spouse’s Debt?

Again, the answer to this question is most often no. Family members, including spouses, are generally not responsible for paying off the debts of their deceased relatives. That includes credit card debts, student loans, car loans, mortgages and business loans.

Instead, any outstanding debts would be paid out from the deceased person’s estate. What that means for you as a surviving spouse is that you wouldn’t be obligated to pay anything personally toward the debt. But your spouse’s assets could be tapped to cover loans or other debts they’ve left behind.

A debt collector can, however, reach out to you following your spouse’s death to confirm who they should contact about debt repayment. Typically, this would be the executor of the estate. If your spouse had a will, they may have named their executor in that document. Otherwise, you could petition the probate court to become their executor once they pass away.

A key part of the executor’s role is to inventory the deceased person’s assets, estimate their value, notify creditors of their death and pay any lingering debts. When no cash resources, such as a bank account, are available to do so the executor can liquidate assets to pay off creditors.

When a Surviving Spouse Is Responsible for Paying Debts

Most of the time, you wouldn’t be required to pay a deceased spouse’s debts directly from your personal assets. But it’s possible that you may have to pay debts left by your spouse if:

  • They’re jointly owed. If you cosigned a loan with your spouse or you’re listed as a joint account holder on a credit card, then legally, you’re equally responsible for the debt. In that case, the death of your spouse wouldn’t eliminate your obligation to pay any remaining balance on the debt.

  • You live in a community property state. Community property laws make both spouses equally responsible for debts incurred after the marriage has taken place. So even if your spouse leaves behind a debt that was owed in his or her name only, you could still have to pay it if you live in a community property state.

  • State law requires you to pay. You may have to pay certain debts incurred by your deceased spouse if it’s mandated by the laws of your state. For example, you may have to pay their outstanding medical bills after your spouse’s death.

It’s important to note that with credit card debts, there’s a distinction between joint account holders and authorized users. As a joint account holder, you and your spouse are both considered owners of the account. That means you share equally in the ownership of any debt that accrues on the card.

Authorized user status, on the other hand, means that you have charging privileges on your spouse’s card. But you’re not considered an account owner. If your spouse were to pass away, as an authorized user you wouldn’t be responsible for paying the debt. The exception would be if you lived in a community property state.

Can You Be Sued for a Deceased Spouse’s Debt?

"DEBT" written on a beach
"DEBT" written on a beach

When a deceased spouse leaves debt behind, it’s possible that debt collectors could attempt to sue you personally to recover what’s owed. Whether these efforts are successful hinges on whether you can, in fact, be held responsible for the debt. In the case of jointly owned debts or debts in community property states, it’s possible that a debt collector could file a small claims case to collect any remaining balance owed.

If you’re sued, the debt collector would first have to win a judgment before additional collection actions, such as garnishing your wages or levying your bank accounts, could be pursued.

If you’re sued for a debt that you aren’t legally responsible for, you may want to talk to an attorney about what to do next. Ignoring the filing and missing the court date could result in a default judgment being filed against you. An attorney can help you prepare a response to the lawsuit and organize supporting documentation to show that you can’t legally be sued for the debt.

Planning Ahead to Avoid Spousal Debt

Finding out that you’re responsible for a deceased spouse’s debt or that their estate will be tapped to pay their debts can be an unpleasant surprise. Incorporating debt repayment measures into your financial plan can help ensure that neither of you is left holding the bag for unpaid bills if the other passes away.

For example, your financial plan should include which debts you’re responsible for individually and jointly. It may be helpful to create an inventory of your debts, including who owes what, to which creditor and the amount that’s owed.

From there, you can create contingencies for paying those debts off if one of you passes away. For instance, purchasing a life insurance policy for each of you means the surviving spouse will have money to pay off debts, cover funeral expenses or pay any other necessary expenses without feeling financially burdened.

It’s also helpful to check who your beneficiaries are for things like a 401(k) or individual retirement accounts. These types of accounts are generally insulated against debt collection efforts so naming one another as your beneficiaries could offer some protection for those assets. You also might consider transferring some or all of your assets to a trust, which can also put them out of reach of debt collectors.

The Bottom Line

Man on a swing set alone
Man on a swing set alone

Am I responsible for my spouse’s debt after death? is an important question for couples to consider because of the financial implications it may have. In the event that you’re responsible for paying a deceased spouse’s debts, it helps to know exactly what’s involved and how that could affect you financially after they’re gone. Talking to an estate planning attorney can help you understand the process so you’re prepared to handle those obligations.

Tips for Handling Debt

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about how debt might affect your overall financial plan and goals. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool makes it easy to connect with professional advisors in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get your personalized advisor recommendations online. If you’re ready, get started now.

  • If you end up having to pay someone else’s credit card debt a free easy-to-use credit card debt calculator can simplify your task. Also, if you and your spouse are struggling with credit card balances or other types of debt, talking to a certified credit counselor may help.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/Ralf Geithe, ©iStock.com/400tmax, ©iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

The post Am I Responsible for My Deceased Spouse’s Debt? appeared first on SmartAsset Blog.