Responsible for the Debt of a Deceased Spouse or Loved One?

Coping with the death of a loved one is difficult enough without the added stress of dealing with financial matters. Whether you’re a spouse, parent, child, or friend, the emotional toll could be compounded by worries about finances. Here’s a touch of good news. While you may have to help handle the deceased’s financial affairs, many debts aren’t passed on.

Here’s a quick summary of how various scenarios are handled, and we’ll dig deeper into the details below.

Scenario Will you be responsible?
You didn’t cosign anything, and the deceased isn’t your spouse Likely no
You’re responsible for handling the estate Likely yes, but using the estate’s assets not your own
You cosigned a financial obligation, or have a joint financial account with the deceased Likely yes
The debt was taken on by a spouse or domestic partner while you lived in a community property state Likely yes

Some Basic Info

The deceased’s assets are often what’s used to settle unpaid bills, and collectively the person’s assets and liabilities make up their estate. Debts don’t disappear when someone dies, but the creditors could be limited to collecting payment from the person’s estate. Some assets might be off limits as well. For example, life insurance policies and retirement accounts could pass money on to a listed beneficiary outside of probate and creditors won’t have any claims to those monies.

Debts could go unpaid if there aren’t enough assets in the estate to cover the liabilities—that’s okay and in line with the law.

But First, Get the Estate’s Finances in Order

When someone passes away, state laws and the deceased’s will (if there is one) will determine who gets the job of keeping the estate’s finances in order. The named person could be known as the executor, personal representative, administrator, or universal successor. Among other responsibilities, this individual will help execute the will, create an estate bank account, close out the deceased’s financial accounts, and work through the probate process when it’s necessary.

If this responsibility falls on your shoulders, you could start by creating a detailed account of financial concerns and sources of assets or debts that will need to be addressed, including:

  • Funeral service and burial costs
  • Estate, will, and trust matters
  • Taxable investments, including brokerage accounts
  • Tax-advantaged retirement accounts, such as IRAs, 401(k)s, or 403(b)s
  • Income and employment matters, such as Social Security benefits
  • Tax-related documents
  • Current bills
  • Miscellaneous expenses

Having a list of assets, liabilities, and other obligations can help you sort through what needs to be done in the coming weeks. In some cases, you may need to work with an attorney, accountant, tax advisor, or financial institution representatives to get all the documents in order.

The executor or administrator of the estate should send the death certificate to the deceased’s banks, credit card issuers, insurers or annuity companies, government agencies, credit reporting agencies, and membership organizations. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a checklist you can use or share with the executor.

A funeral director might be able to order certified death certificates for you, and you can request additional copies from the county clerk recorder or state. Order more certified copies of the death certificate than you expect to need so you’ll always have one on hand.

Assess any Debts

Once the estate is in order and you’ve taken care of these basic housekeeping items, you’ll want to take a closer look at any debts to determine if you or other family members will be responsible for covering the costs.

Determine if You’re Liable

While many debts don’t pass on to relatives or friends, there are several circumstances in which you might be responsible for repaying the deceased’s debt.

Did you cosign a loan?

If you cosigned a loan, lease, mortgage, credit card, or other types financial obligation with the deceased, you’ll likely be responsible for repaying remaining balances and fulfilling the obligations.

If you are an authorized user, rather than a cosigner, then you should be in the clear. Authorized users aren’t responsible for the debt on a credit card account, even for the purchases that they made. When the account’s owner dies, the account should be closed by the card’s issuer and the primary and authorized user’s cards should be deactivated.

Have you lived in a community property state with a spouse?

According to the IRS Publication 555, community property is property “that you, your spouse (or your registered domestic partner), or both acquire during your marriage (or registered domestic partnership) while you and your spouse (or your registered domestic partner) are domiciled in a community property state.” It could also include property you choose to convert to community property and property that can’t be identified as separate.

Community property includes income, savings, and debt, in addition to physical assets. In other words, both partners could be responsible for repaying a loan or credit card debt even if only one person took out the loan or credit card. Stephan M. Brown, an attorney with NewPoint Law Group in Roseville, California, says that in community property states “a surviving spouse is often responsible for the debts of the deceased spouse, but only to the extent that the claims are against community property.”

Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin are community property states. Puerto Rico is a community property jurisdiction, and spouses in Alaska and Tennessee can choose to create community property with a formal agreement or property trust.

Are there medical bills?

Although they’re not always enforced, some states have filial responsibility laws that could require adult children with the financial means to pay medical bills when their parents are unable to do so. The debt could accrue during the parent’s later years and be left after death. However, if your parent qualifies and enrolls in Medicare, then the filial responsibility generally doesn’t apply.

You could also be on the hook if your spouse leaves behind medical debts. Some states, including non-community-property states, have laws that make a spouse automatically liable for medical bills. However, the state might limit the liability to debt for necessary or life-saving procedures.

What about Outstanding Auto Loans or Mortgages?

The situation could get a little trickier when someone leaves behind a home or vehicle with outstanding debt tied to it. The creditor may be able to repossess the vehicle or foreclose on the home unless you take over the monthly payments. Mortgage lenders generally can’t require you to pay the outstanding balance all at once and can’t kick out a surviving spouse or beneficiary who continues to make mortgage payments while living in the home.

What if you want to sell the home rather than live in it? If the house is underwater, meaning it’s worth less than the outstanding debt on the home, you won’t be liable for the difference, but the estate might be. Creditors (and the state if the deceased received Medicaid benefits) also might be able to place a lien on the home and require you settle outstanding debts before selling the home.

A Debt Collector Could Call – Hold Your Ground

Collection agencies sometimes try to collect a deceased person’s debts from relatives, even when the law isn’t on their side. These collectors may represent traditional banks and creditors, or hospitals and other medical providers. You can inform the collection agency to contact the estate’s executor, administrator, or whoever else is authorized to make debt payments from the estate. If you’re the one in charge, you may want to verify the debt, its age, and whether or not the estate is liable

Hold your ground when a collector is pressuring you to make a payment for a debt you don’t owe. You can send a letter (use certified mail with a return receipt request and keep a copy for your records) requesting the collection agency to stop contacting you regarding the debt, and it should comply. If you continue to receive calls, you can file a complaint with your state’s Attorney General’s office and the Federal Trade Commission.

Bottom Line

There are a few cases when debt survives the individual. If someone else cosigned a financial agreement, a surviving spouse has community property debt, or there is eligible medical debt, then some debt may be passed on. However, even then, the debt that’s passed on is limited. In other cases, creditors will collect payments from the deceased’s estate. Leftover assets in the estate can be distributed to beneficiaries, and when there’s more debt than the estate can cover the remainder could be forgiven.

Louis DeNicola is a personal finance writer with a passion for sharing advice on credit and how to save money. In addition to being a contributing writer at Clearpoint, you can find his work on Credit Karma, MSN Money, Cheapism, Business Insider, and Daily Finance.

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72 responses to “Responsible for the Debt of a Deceased Spouse or Loved One?”

  • Dorothy

    My Mother recently passed away. My sister has Power of Attorney. My sister arranged all the funeral (I had no part in the arranging/decisions.) My Mother had a Will but I don’t know if my sister had my Mom change it after my Mother got Alzhemier’s. My Mother has a house and land she owned. Unless my sister changed that too. My Mother lived in a nursing home in recent years of which I was not allowed to have information concerning my Mothers health or well being. My sister blocked any information from me. My sister and I have not associated for 7 years, she is very spiteful. Am I obligated to help my sister pay any funeral or medical expenses seeing as she had Power of Attorney and I was not involved with my Mothers care or finances or involved with my sister for the last 7 years and even many years before because of sisters spitefulness? Could I insist my sister sell the house and land to recoup the money she’s spent on funeral etc. My sister also was a co-signer on my Moms checking account and other accounts. Sister has always been a gold-digger waiting to profit from Moms passing. Am I obligated for any repayment to my sister? My sister was no help to me many years ago (20 or better) when I took care of Mom during the lose of my Stepfather, her struggle with cancer and after she got Alzheimer’s until 7 years ago. And then she stuck her in the worst nursing home ever. Not totally caring about my Mothers care, I am very anxious because my sister has always been devious. Would appreciate you addressing this. It has affected my health worrying. In addition to information I reside in NM.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Dorothy! I’m very sorry about the loss of your mother and this very difficult family situation. It sounds like your case is very unique and has a lot of complexity. I’d suggest reaching out to your local New Mexico Bar association to find a lawyer who can help you understand what you are and are not responsible. Generally, the deceased’s estate is used to reconcile accounts first. In this case, that means your mother’s home and land, if she owned it, would be due for the costs of her final expenses, including care and burial expenses, before there were any inheritance. Again, though, your case is unique, and I’d suggest reaching out to your local Bar Association.

  • Chrystalyn Lynn

    My father passed about a month ago, and had a life insurance policy that made only me the beneficiary. My stepmom is threatening that if I cash the check, and don’t sign it over to her, she’ll evict me the next day. She said she needs it to pay his medical bills, but he had Medicare, Medicaid, and a check each month from social security. Not to mention, she got everything else, and I haven’t even seen his will. Do I have to give her my check that’s in my name, and why?

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Chrystalyn! I’m sorry for your loss. This is an incredibly unique situation, and laws are different in every state, so I’d suggest getting in touch with your state’s local Bar Association for legal advice.

  • My mom passed and in her will she left me her house and car I am now living in the house and her car is my only transportation. I have already transfered them into my name. A credit card has filed $7000.00 to her estate. With the little bit of money she had and then her life insurance. There is just enough to pay for funeral expenses and the lawyer. Am I responsible for the balance of that credit card still

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Jean! The answer to this varies state by state, so I’d suggest reaching out to your local state Bar Association for legal advice. Usually, the estate must be totally settled before any inheritance can occur, meaning that the value of the car and/or home would need to be applied to the credit card balance before you can inherit them. Again, this depends state-by-state, so I’d suggest getting in touch with a lawyer in your state.

  • my daughter 19 full time student passed away dec 27 2016 , I claimed her on my 2016 return however after filing in 2016 I began to get medical bills owed fees for autopsy funeral school loans which I paid in 2017 though out that 2017 year, since my daughter passed in 2016 can I claim all these expenses paid for her even though she passed away the year before.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Judy. I’m very sorry for your loss. I’d suggest working with your accountant to understand what the best tax strategy for you is.

  • I husband recently died. He had an Ex-wife that owned him a lot of money through a quick claim deed on a house that she never did pay. Now that he has passed away,how do I collect the money she owned him. Can I write this off as a tax loss.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Ann! You should touch base with an accountant in your state regarding your specific tax situation. Sorry I can’t be more helpful!

  • In the case of my son’s death, who is responsible for funeral expenses? He was 25, living with his fiance and thier son as a married couple. They filed taxes as married, although they weren’t legally married. She got the tax return the day he died. There wasn’t any will or estate assets. Who is legally and morally resposible for expenses?

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Vicky. I’m really sorry for the loss of your son. We can’t tell you what your moral responsibility is- that’s up to you. I’d suggest your each out to your state’s Bar Association for legal advice. Hope that helps!

  • I have a domestic partnership. My partner passed away and left medical bills that are unpaid. Am I responsible for these bills.We are both owners of our house and I wonder if there could be a lean on it.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Linda! I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, but property law is state-specific. You should reach out to your local Bar Association for legal advice.

  • siccdehmann@gmail.com

    If my mom was on my dad’s insurance is he responsible to pay for her actions and stuff

    • Emilie Burke

      Hello. I’m really sorry about the loss of your mother. While it’s property laws are state-specific, spouses are usually responsible for each other’s debts. I’d suggest reaching out to your state Bar Association for legal advice.

  • If my mom and dad were married in my mom passed away but she was on his insurance is he obligated to pay her final bills ambulance food stuff like that

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Nate. I’m really sorry about the loss of your mother. While it’s property laws are state-specific, spouses are usually responsible for each other’s debts. I’d suggest reaching out to your state Bar Association for legal advice.

  • My husband passed away 3 months ago. I am on social security disability. Am I responsible for his medical bills.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Doreen! I’m sorry about the loss of your husband. The law protects Social Security benefits from being taken to cover medical debt. Whether or not you are legally responsible for those medical bills depends on the state you’re in. I hope that’s helpful!

  • Beth Tinker

    My mom recently passed away. She lived in an apartment that rent was income based. Her rent was $138/month. We’ve been working on sorting, vacating, and cleaning for 3 weeks now, everything she had was antique/vintage /family heirloom and was packed away so meticulously that it’s amazing how much she had in her little apartment. Because if the types of belongings, we’ve had to go through everything very carefully, which is taking a lot of time. We spoke with the manager the day we found out that she’d passed, and all we were told us that they’d just charge $19/day, and that her deposit would be used up first. The first week was dedicated to planning her services and of course, our own period of mourning. After that, we’ve worked tirelessly trying to get everything out and cleaned. I’ve left several messages for the manager to call me, because it’s taken longer than anticipated, and she finally called back today. She informed me that normally they expect it to be vacated in 14 days.. We’re already past that, and it’s $22/day. More than we were originally told… And much more than my mom’s rent had been. She’s giving us until the weekend to be done and telling us we still will owe $275 after using up the deposit. My mom had no will, no executor, no DPOA, nobody else’s name on anything. Do we legally have to pay the $275?

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Beth. I’d suggest reaching out to your state’s Bar Association. Best of luck!

  • Lisa robbins

    My husband was selling a house on contract when we married he added my name to deed he passed away nov 17 2017 I took his name off deed immediately and sold the house same with his avalanche took his name off and mine on I have creditors calling me wanting to know whose in charge of his estate am I liable to pay his debts since both names were on the house and I sold it 11,000 in credit card debt my name isn’t on them got 27,000 on house I live on disability 750 month

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Lisa! I’m really sorry about the loss of your husband. This mostly depends on what state you’re in, as property laws are state-specific. In most cases, it’s likely yes.

  • Can I be responsible for funereal costs even though I did not sign any responsible for arrangements and the person who did passed away know they say I’m responsible even legal action could be taken

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Angie!
      If you’d like to know what legal action could be taken in your state, I’d suggest reaching out to the local Bar association.

  • Marcy Miller

    My father passed away in Oct 2017 and now my mother has been contacted by a collection agency regarding a lease my father consigned for my sister. My mother was unaware. It was done in 2011. Is my mother responsible for this debt? They lived in Fl when he signed the lease but lived in TN when he died.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Marcy! I’m sorry about that situation and the loss of your father. Since property law is state-specific and you’ve got some nuances around crossing state lines, I’d suggest contacting a lawyer to understand what your family is and is not legally responsible for!

  • My dad just pass away he was paying on a new truck can my mom keep tge truck and just keep paying the monthly notes?

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Tammy! Usually that’s not an issue as long as the payments do not stop, though she will probably want to change the truck into her name. Hope that helps!

  • James stoneking

    My wife passed away in June 21 of 2017 today I get a bill for ambulance for $698.00 do I have to pay that.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi James! I’m very sorry for the loss of your wife. Unfortunately, it depends on what state you’re in. I’m sorry I can’t be more help.

  • Michael

    My wife died in 2014 the put accont for a hospital on my credit report do i have to pay it

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Michael. I’m sorry for the loss of your wife. This depends on your state, so I cannot help without more details. I hope that helps!

  • My boyfriend passed away. Can the credit car company come after me?

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Shelly! I’m sorry for your loss. If you didn’t cosign for the car and his estate was settled properly, you should be fine! Good luck.

  • Alice Magee

    My Husband will be getting a large amount of money soon from a Famliy a state.as his wife will I be able to it too.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Alice! It depends on what state you’re in! You can consult with your state Bar for state-specific advice!

  • Phyllis

    My husband passed away, he purchased furniture in his name only Am I responsible to pay this this bill?
    Living in GA

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Phyllis! Georgia is not a community property state, so likely not, but you should consult with a local lawyer! I hope that is helpful!

  • My husband passed away from cancer in November we do not own a home. We only had a joint small savings account. The car has always been under my name, no will. He passed away in New York but we live in Florida. Am I responsible for hospital bills.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Kathy! I’m sorry about the loss of your husband. Given that your issues cross state lines, I’d suggest consulting with a lawyer as you settle his estate. Best of luck!

  • Diane dee

    Husband passed away in ct. Am I responsible for his credit card balance? Living in ct

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Diane! I’m sorry about the loss of your husband. In CT, most likely not, but I suggest reaching out to your local Bar association as we do not give legal advice.

  • My husband had a friend that became homeless and sleeping in his car. He was with us for a little over 2 months going in and out of the hospital with complications from cirrhosis of the liver. He is now in hospice care. When he passes will we be responsible for his medical debt. He used our address when he went into the hospital.

    • Emilie Burke

      Hello! If you have not signed for anything and are not legally responsible for him, most likely not. I suggest reaching out to your local Bar association for legal advice, though.

  • My partner of 20 years passed away 3 mouths ago he was paying off a truck that was in his name the truck was stolen out side our home the night we had barried him he had insurance on it can they take what is owned out of that insurance

    • Emilie Burke

      Mary, I’m very sorry to hear about your loss. I’d suggest reaching out to a lawyer in your state to help you understand what rights you do or don’t have. You can find the name of a lawyer on your state’s bar association website.

  • My partner of 20 years passed away 3 month’s ago he was paying off a truck it was stolen the night we barried him from our home it was just in his name do I have to pay for it

    • He had insurance on it can they take what is owned out of that insurance

  • David B. Royer

    My daughter died in 2015, she worked had 2 children with a guy, they bought a house together. Although they were both seeing someone else, she left an insurance policy with NO beneficiary. I lost my first daughter 2 years before that. My daughter’s boyfriend did not know how to proceed with anything so I ask if I should since I was just through this. He said yes, I told him that I couldn’t pay for the funeral. Now I am being taken to court to pay all the funeral expenses. Am I liable

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi David! I’m sorry about this difficult situation you’re in! I’d suggest reaching out to your local bar association to find a lawyer who could help you.

  • Danette Huls

    My husbands funeral expenses were paid off by his family without my knowledge. Am I obligated to pay them back?

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Danette! I’m sorry for the loss of your husband. You are not legally obligated to pay them back if you did not agree to it. Only you, though, can decide on your moral obligation.

  • My mom is terminally ill. I cosigned on her house when i was fresh out of high school. Her spouse and her have been living there for years. Will i be responsible for the debt of this home after her death? Would her spouse have any rights to it? Can the house be transferred in his name instead? I’m not sure what to do regarding this. How can i prevent myself from accruing her debt when she passes on?

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Jamie! What would be best is to refinance the home out of your name as soon as possible. Removing your name of the debt would remove you as being responsible for it!

  • Frank Castle

    I reside in Penna…My wife passed away due to cancer. Now the cancer center where she rec’d treatment is sending bills in her name to our home. The rep says it is a STATE LAW that indicates the deceased spouse is liable for the debt. True or false ? They even threatened negative credit if not paid…

    • Emilie Burke

      Pennsylvania is a marital property state. For more details than that, I’d suggest reaching out to a local lawyer familiar with your state’s property laws.

  • Marcus Bolte

    My wife passed away 2 months ago and she was on medicare for disability she has accumulated over 42,000 in medical bills and a few charged off credit cards we have been married for 27 years and I live in Nebraska. Am I liable for all that debt when I do not hardle make enough money to pay the bills I have now, Thanks

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Marcus, I’m very sorry for your loss. I would suggest reaching out to your local state Bar to understand your state’s property laws. I hope that helps!

  • Elenita kadusale

    My father who is a widow died and has a bank loan with a collateral of dump track and car. May I ask if the loan can be discharged because he died already or is the debt will be pass on to us his children?

    • Emilie Burke

      Hi Elenita! Usually, someone’s estate must pay their debts first. In other words, the dump truck and car must be liquidated first!

  • Christine

    My boyfriend and I have been together for almost 20 yrs. He’s not a healthy man and wants us to marry before he dies ,so I can get his social security or some of his pension. If he has medical bills from before are marriage will I be responsible?

    • My gf and I have had a crazy relationship breaking up, getting back together. Recently her ex husband who does not like me texted me stating she has terminal cancer. In talking with her she expressed a desire to die married and she loves me. In my heart I would do this in a second…she know this…but my therapist is suspicious that this is a way to transfer her debts which I imagine to be significant to me. She lives in Arizona. If I were to marry her how do I protect myself?

      • Thomas Nitzsche

        Hi Pat, I am so sorry to hear of her illness and the situation in which you find yourself. I would highly recommend you seek legal advice on this question and proceed with great caution. If you are not sure who to contact, you can get a referral from your local bar association or legal aid.

    • My husband has lots of debt and a mortgage in his name . I will have little income if he dies first. Am I responsible for these debts

      • Emilie Burke

        Hi Jean! It depends on such things as where you live and what sort of arrangements you. I suggest connecting with your local Bar Association to find a lawyer who specializes in these things.

    • terremiller@me.com

      Hi these r kind of confusing so I will give my scenario if my husband died without medical insurance do i have to pay it his medical debt?

    • Ok me and my husband was married for only 2 month and he died but he never owned any thing togather I am the only one who owns stuff so can the funeral home come after me for his funeral ? And his older kid has a power of attorney over him.

      • Emilie Burke

        Hi Jessie! I’m sorry about this situation you’re in. I’d suggest getting in touch with your local bar association and contacting a lawyer in your state who can guide you through this process.

  • Christine Randle

    Good Day, My brother lives in the State of Tennessee. His wife passed away on January 5th, 2017 this year. She was on COBRA as she had been out of work from Walmart for over a year with medical issues and suspended from her job on 9/30/16. She then had to go on COBRA in which according to my brother (his wife said you will not have to worry is I were ever to succumb to this sickness as I have life insurance through work) ended up being only for health insurance coverage not the previously held life insurance policy they held before she was terminated. There was no life insurance and I within helping him to process all of the paperwork learned that is true COBRA is just a continuation of you health insurance coverage. He was not on the COBRA health insurance he obtained his own through his place of employment. My brother has medical collections, new medical charges coming in left and right and he is contacting everyone (to include the collectors that are mean to him and don’t believe his wife has passed that he is making it up) to try and set up payment schedules as some were already in place obtained by his late wife. They had one life insurance policy that was there for the long term healthcare she had for the amount of $5000 dollars. This will cover what is owed for the funeral. Is my brother responsible for paying his late wife’s medical bills. He signed no guarantee on any Doctor visits, Hospital stays, etc. Any information you can provide would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Christine

    • Thomas Bright

      I’m sorry to hear about the loss in your family Christine! Questions like this are always inherently complicated and vary by state. Unfortunately, I can’t give legal advice and don’t feel comfortable making any firm statements here. You may have done this already, but I suggest some state specific research about how this scenario is commonly handled in Tennessee, and you might also consider contacting an attorney.

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