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An Inheritance of Debt

12th April 2010
By Adam Walters in Estate Planning
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“He left me nothing but bills. Do I have to pay them?”

Unfortunately, many folks who have lost a loved one quickly find that the deceased had accrued substantial debt. Survivors are often then left with the challenges of dealing with this debt both ethically and legally. While the moral issue is something that should be understood, the legal obligation is what worries most people. The usual question asked is “Do I owe the debt of a deceased family member?” The answer may shock you.

If a deceased person originated a debt that he/she alone accrued, then he/she was responsible, and you are not. In this case you should rest easy because you would have no legal obligation to pay the debt. However the debt of a dead relative may affect you due to possible responsibility of their estate to cover those obligations, thereby leaving a smidge less inheritance to heirs.

There are usually only two circumstances where you may be legally responsible for a relative’s debts. The first case is when you are a co-signer on obligations of the individual. This would happen when you and the deceased were co-signers on a loan such as a credit card account or a property mortgage. In those cases you were jointly and severally (together and individually) obligated. Just because one of the parties obligated for a debt passes away, it does not relieve the surviving party of their responsibility.

The other possible obligation scenario is if you are the spouse of the deceased person and you live in what is referred to as a “community property” state. These states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. If you live in these states and your husband or wife dies, you will want to seek counsel from an estate attorney.

Another issue comes in feeling a moral obligation to pay a deceased relative’s debts even though there is no legal obligation to do so. Before you consider this option you should take into consideration how the loss of the funds in question will affect you and your family’s current and long term security. In addition, you should recognize that companies that loan money know that a certain number of their debtors will pass away owing them money. They compensate for this reality in the fees and interest they charge their entire customer base. So, the pay off of debts owed by a deceased person, by a relative, can be viewed as bonus profits for the company in question and not as an unexpected loss.

You will note that most companies protect themselves from the possibility of loss by getting multiple signers on debt instruments and placing liens on collateral such as real property, automobiles, equipment, etc so that they can either take ownership of the assets or force their sale in order to satisfy the debt. If you choose to pay off a relative’s debt when you have no legal obligation to do so, that is your choice, but be sure to review all aspects of the action before you do so.

Adam Walters works on many things, including a website that provides state-certified Utah Real Estate Continuing Education credits.
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