Do beneficiaries have to pay creditors out of their own pocket if the estate is insolvent?

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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: Jul 15, 2021

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No, Beneficiaries are not liable for the debts of the deceased, just because they are Beneficiaries. If they were, people could run up lots of debts, name their worst enemies as their Beneficiaries, and saddle their enemies with those debts when they died.

One circumstance where creditors might make claims against a Beneficiary would be if the deceased gave that Beneficiary substantial assets shortly before dying or if the Beneficiary took property belonging to the deceased. For example, if a father signed over his apartment building to his daughter two weeks before he died, or a son used a debit card to empty bank accounts while his mother was ill, creditors might well object. Even then, the claims wouldn’t be made because the daughter or son was a Beneficiary, but because the creditor would claim that the deceased and/or the Beneficiary acted to defraud the creditors. It’s legal to make gifts, but not to give away property to avoid paying legitimate debts.

If people, like the relatives of the deceased, have voluntarily assumed liability for care given the deceased, or guaranteed payments of some kind, they could be held liable for some or all of the deceased’s debts. For example, if the children of the deceased promised to pay a rest home for care of the deceased during the last illness, they would be liable for those costs. If they guaranteed payment of rent, they would be liable for those costs. Again, this wouldn’t be because the children were Beneficiaries of the deceased, but because they had promised to pay those debts.

Of course, Beneficiaries might suffer the loss of inheritances they expected to receive if the estate is insolvent or if there aren’t enough assets left after the bills are paid to give the Beneficiaries what the deceased specified in a Will. Beneficiaries are only given property after all debts are paid, so real property a Beneficiary expected to inherit might have to be sold to pay debts or a Beneficiary might receive only $2000 when the Will said $20,000. Beneficiaries might receive nothing or a reduced amount because of debts owed by the deceased, but they won’t be required to pay debts out of their own pockets simply because they are named as Beneficiaries in a Will.

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