When There Are Not Enough Assets to Cover the Deceased’s Debts, and There Is a Will

UPDATED: Jul 18, 2023Fact Checked

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Jeffrey Johnson

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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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Mary Martin

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Mary Martin has been a legal writer and editor for over 20 years, responsible for ensuring that content is straightforward, correct, and helpful for the consumer. In addition, she worked on writing monthly newsletter columns for media, lawyers, and consumers. Ms. Martin also has experience with internal staff and HR operations. Mary was employed for almost 30 years by the nationwide legal publi...

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UPDATED: Jul 18, 2023

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UPDATED: Jul 18, 2023Fact Checked

When someone dies and there is a Will, the Will controls that person’s financial affairs after death. It distributes his or her assets. But before any money can be distributed to beneficiaries of the Will, all the debts of the deceased must be paid, including the funeral bill, any medical bills, credit card debts, and, of course, taxes. This might require the sale of some assets if the deceased did not set aside enough in the Will to cover all of the debt. As a beneficiary, you are not directly responsible for paying the deceased’s debts. You are affected by those debts, nevertheless, if not enough money was set aside to pay them. Here is how.

Anyone who believes they are owed money from the deceased (creditors) has a certain amount of time to file a claim against the estate with the Probate Court (usually 90 – 120 days). The court will then decide if the claim is legitimate, and if so, will decide how much they’re entitled to. If the deceased’s assets have to be liquidated to pay these debts, the court will order that to be done. If not enough was reserved to pay the bills, the court will take some of the gifts meant for beneficiaries to cover the debts first. What remains will go to the beneficiaries.

The court decides which beneficiaries do not get paid or who gets paid less than the amount they were bequeathed. In legal terms, this is called abatement, which simply means a reduction. So basically, abatement occurs if the deceased person did not leave enough property to fulfill all the bequests made in the Will and meet other expenses. The gifts are cut back in order to pay taxes, satisfy debts or even to take care of other gifts that are given priority under law or by the Will itself.

Suppose that even with all the assets, there is not enough to cover the debt, let alone any gifts? The situation is then regarded as insolvent. An insolvent estate is one that has insufficient assets to cover its debt. If there are any beneficiaries, they get nothing. The debt is paid to the extent it can be.

The good news is that beneficiaries will never inherit debt. They may end up with nothing if your assets do not cover everything, but they will not be stuck with the bill.

This generally works the same way if there is no Will. Your outstanding debts are still paid from your estate before anything gets passed on to your heirs, who are determined by your state’s intestacy laws.

Case Studies: When There Are Not Enough Assets to Cover the Deceased’s Debts, and There Is a Will

Case Study 1: Abatement of Gifts to Cover Debts

In this case, John passed away, leaving behind a Will that bequeathed specific gifts to his beneficiaries. However, after his debts were assessed, it was determined that there were not enough assets to cover all the debts and fulfill the bequests in the Will. As a result, the court ordered abatement, reducing the gifts to beneficiaries in order to pay off the outstanding debts and expenses.

Case Study 2: Insolvent Estate and No Beneficiary Inheritance

In this scenario, Sarah’s estate was deemed insolvent, meaning there were insufficient assets to cover the debts. As a result, there were no funds available to distribute to beneficiaries. Although Sarah had designated beneficiaries in her Will, they received nothing due to the lack of assets to fulfill the bequests.

Case Study 3: Intestacy and Debt Repayment

In this case, Emily passed away without a Will, and her outstanding debts needed to be paid from her estate. The estate’s assets were used to cover the debts before anything could be passed on to Emily’s heirs, as determined by the state’s intestacy laws.

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Jeffrey Johnson

Insurance Lawyer

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...

Insurance Lawyer

Mary Martin

Published Legal Expert

Mary Martin has been a legal writer and editor for over 20 years, responsible for ensuring that content is straightforward, correct, and helpful for the consumer. In addition, she worked on writing monthly newsletter columns for media, lawyers, and consumers. Ms. Martin also has experience with internal staff and HR operations. Mary was employed for almost 30 years by the nationwide legal publi...

Published Legal Expert

Editorial Guidelines: We are a free online resource for anyone interested in learning more about legal topics and insurance. Our goal is to be an objective, third-party resource for everything legal and insurance related. We update our site regularly, and all content is reviewed by experts.

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