Am I Responsible for the Debts of my Deceased Spouse or Other Relatives?

by Jonathan Ginsberg, Esq.

March 5, 2009

Losing a loved one can be very difficult, especially if your spouse or other loved one dies unexpectedly.  What happens to debts owed by the deceased after his or her death?

Laws vary from State to State, but in many cases the departed’s estate becomes responsible for outstanding debt.  However this does not necessarily mean that the deceased’s next of kin will get nothing from the estate.  Many States have special provisions that allow the immediate next of kin to take money from the estate when that money is used for support and maintenance.  In Georgia, where I practice, this right is known as a “year’s support” and can be a tremendous help to surviving relatives.

If you are facing an unexpected financial crisis brought about by the death of a loved one, you should seek counsel before paying any debts owed by the deceased or his estate.

What if your deceased relative has no assets to make up an estate?  In that case, a surviving spouse or child does not owe anything to creditors of the deceased.  That you have no legal obligation to a creditor, of course, does not stop those creditors from calling you to try and collect.   The New York Times reports that “dead people are the newest front in debt collection.”  Debt collectors are trained to express sympathy and empathy in an effort to persuade bereaved relatives that the dear departed would have wanted his survivors to pay his bills.

If you have followed the posts on the Debt Law Network blog, you will notice a theme.  Bill collectors will try to collect from anybody that may be willing and able to pay.  It does not matter to these folks that they have no legal right to collect (zombie debt and debts of dead people), they will call and try anyway.  Although you would think that our state and federal legislators would want to protect consumers from vulture collectors, you would be mistaken in that belief.  Banks and lending institutions have the money and expertise to lobby lawmakers, so I would not expect any protection with teeth anytime soon.

Bottom line – if you start getting calls from creditors about debts supposedly owed by a deceased spouse, parent or other loved one, do not assume that the caller is telling you the truth, no matter how nice or sympathetic that caller sounds.  Instead, inform the caller that you intend to speak with your attorney about your obligations and hang up the phone.

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Jonathan Ginsberg, Esq.

I represent individuals in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 cases filed in the Northern District of Georgia, which includes Atlanta, Newnan, Gainesville and Rome. I publish several informative web sites, including www.atlanta-bankruptcy-attorney.com and an Atlanta bankruptcy blog, www.thebklawyer.com/thebkblog. Please mention Bankruptcy Law Network when you call.

Last modified: October 22, 2012