Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 16, 2019

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If your parent or spouse passed away and left any debts, you may be liable for them. In the case of a spouse, it usually depends on whether you shared credit card debt, or have other shared accounts. In the case of a parent, whether or not you have to pay their debts depends on a number of factors such as whether you were a co-signer on a credit account responsible for the debt.

Debt Collection and Surviving Spouses

If you and your spouse had a joint credit card, you would be responsible for paying the credit card debt after your spouse dies even it your spouse actually made all the charges without your knowledge. On the other hand, if a credit card account was opened with your spouse’s information and you were just issued a card as a user, meaning, you didn’t sign the credit card agreement, you might not be liable for the credit card debt when your spouse dies. This is especially the case if your spouse made the charges.  You will be liable for any debts you and your spouse entered into together, including medical expenses, if you also signed the agreement to pay for the expenses. In some community property states you might be liable for all of your spouse’s debts if they were incurred during the marriage, so check your state law.

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Collecting on the Estate After Death of a Spouse

If you aren’t liable for a debt under your state law, your spouse’s creditors can’t try to collect debts from once shared property that belongs to you as the surviving spouse. This includes real property, bank accounts, investment assets, and so on. Your spouse’s creditors have to collect the debt from your spouse’s estate. The assets the creditor can go after to pay debts depends on how they were owned and whether they pass to you on your spouse’s death by operation of law. For example, a creditor can’t claim part of a life insurance payment or pension fund benefit you receive as beneficiary or from property that passed to you by right of survivorship.

Assets Creditors Can Claim after the Death of a Spouse

Creditors can claim payment from any assets that belonged to your spouse and that are part of the probate estate or that are held in a Living Trust your spouse set up. Property in probate can include funds held in a joint bank account with you and other property held jointly, but without a right of survivorship. This means that you may end up paying for your spouse’s debts out of the inheritance you expected to get for yourself, but you usually won’t have to pay from your separate assets.

Debt Collection Laws and Surviving Children

The question of your parent’s debts is different. Children aren’t required to pay their parent’s debts simply because they are related to them. There are a few situations where children might be responsible for their parent’s debts, though.  If a parent gave property to a child shortly before the parent’s death, creditors may make a claim against that property if the property transfer left too little money in the estate to pay the parent’s debts. This claim would not be made because the child is responsible for the parent’s debts. It would be based on a claim that the property transfer was invalid or fraudulent (intending to defraud creditors). The child in that situation would not be liable for any amount of debt beyond the value of the property that was transferred.

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Debt Collection and Co-Signers

Any party might be liable for debts that they’ve agreed to guarantee. For example, if the child acted as a co-signer or promised to pay housing costs for the parent if the parent could not, then the child would be responsible for those debts. This is not because of the parent/child relationship, but because the child took the debts on as his or her own, and so is legally responsible to pay them.

Getting Legal Help

For questions about whether or not you are liable for the debts of a deceased spouse or parent, contact an experienced attorney with questions.