Does a wife bear responsibility for a deceased husband’s debt?

My sister just lost her husband of 4 months to a year long battle with cancer. He had a credit card that was in his name only with a current outstanding balance of about $4000. Is she responsible for any of that debt?

Asked on September 19, 2010 under Bankruptcy Law, Ohio


M.D., Member, California and New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 10 years ago | Contributor

Generally, the surviving spouse is not obligated to pay the bills of the deceased spouse. However, there are several exceptions to this rule. The first exception as to do with just where you live. If you live in a community property state, you would typically bear responsibility for such a debt; however OH is not such a state. The second exception would be if you signed (or in some other way) agreed to be legally bound for re-payments on the debt.; but you don't indicate that to be the case. The last exception falls under something called the "doctrine of necessities". This doctrine was established at common law; many states no longer follow it but some states have actually made it statutory law. Under the “doctrine of necessities”, one spouse is liable for the "necessary" expenses incurred by the other spouse during marriage. However, my research suggests that OH does not follow this doctrine. 

Note: In the case of a deceased spouse, even in a situation that did not fall into one of the above exceptions, the deceased’s estate would still be liable for repayment; therefore, indirectly as surviving spouse could be affected financially. Your sister may want to consult with an attorney in her area. They can best advise you of all or rights as they exist under state law.

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