Who Pays Bills When Someone Dies?

by Brett Weiss, Esq.

March 27, 2008

The Internet is a wonderful place. No matter what the topic, there is an article about it that is dead wrong.

Such is the case with a recent story (in the fullest extent of the word) I read, “When Someone Dies, Who Is Responsible for Paying His Debts?” that appeared here. This story is full of so much misinformation, it’s hard to know where to start.

When someone dies (the law calls this person a “decedent”), all assets owned by them in their individual name automatically become part of their “estate.” This is true even if a probate proceeding is not filed. What does this mean? It means that the estate is liable for any bills owed by the decedent at the time of their death, and that these assets should be used to pay the bills.

What if there aren’t enough assets to pay the bills? It’s simple: the bills don’t get paid (with one exception, discussed below).

What if there are medical bills? Generally, medical bills are treated no differently from credit card bills, although some states have limited exceptions.

If you open an estate, and are named as executor or personal representative of the estate, are you responsible for paying these bills? You do not assume any personal liability for the decedent’s bills simply because you are named executor of their estate.

What happens if the decedent’s bills don’t get paid? Nothing. The creditor will write off any unpaid balance and close the account. That’s it (with one exception, discussed below).

Here’s the exception: if someone is jointly liable with the decedent on a bill, such as a joint account, or a guarantee of a debt, that person remains liable even though the decedent has died. In some community property states, a spouse also may be liable.

If you’re in doubt, don’t listen to the collection agent who’s telling you you need to pay. Many, many, many times they are simply wrong. Check with a lawyer before you pay anything.

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Brett Weiss, a senior partner at Chung & Press, LLC, represents people and businesses in all phases of bankruptcy. He has experience in complex individual Chapter 7, Chapter 11 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy cases, and in Chapter 11 small business restructuring and reorganization. Mr. Weiss lectures nationally on bankruptcy issues. He has testified before the Federal Bankruptcy Rules Committee, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and has twice testified before Congress on bankruptcy and credit issues. Brett Weiss is the co-author of Chapter 11 for Individual Debtors, and has written Not Dead Yet: Bankruptcy After BAPCPA, for the Maryland Bar Journal, as well as hundreds of blogs for the Bankruptcy Law Network. With his law partner, he recorded a 13-hour basic bankruptcy training series, and leads intensive three-day Chapter 11 training boot camps. Mr. Weiss has received international media attention in connection with his work. He was interviewed by Barbara Walters on The View, has appeared on the Today Show, Good Morning America, ABC News with Peter Jennings, the Montel Williams Show, National Public Radio, AARP-TV, the BBC World Service, German state television, and numerous local radio and television programs, and been quoted in Money magazine, The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun, among others. Brett Weiss is the Maryland State Chair for the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, a founding member of the Bankruptcy Law Network, on the board of the Maryland State Bar Consumer Bankruptcy Council, and a member of the American Bankruptcy Institute, the Bankruptcy Bar Association of Maryland, and the Civil Justice Network. He has been recognized as a “Super Lawyer” every year since 2007 for Maryland and the District of Columbia, and in 2011 received the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys for his work on behalf of consumers across the country. Mr. Weiss is admitted to practice before Maryland and District of Columbia federal and state courts, the United States Courts of Appeals for the DC, Fourth and Eighth Circuits, The United States Tax Court, and the Supreme Court of the United States, and has been practicing law since 1983.

Last modified: January 3, 2012