Who is responsible for paying off debts when someone dies?
By Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin,
What happens if a person passes away and no one files probate because the estate has no assets? Do any relatives become liable for taxes owed by the person who died? Would the relatives have to pay off the debts to the deceased person’s creditors?
When a person dies, a probate court distributes his or her assets, including paying outstanding debts.
Although not all assets go through probate, the ones that do are distributed in accordance with the wishes expressed in the deceased’s will. If the person has no will, the assets pass to the decedent’s relatives in accordance with the laws in the jurisdiction where the will is probated. (In some more complicated cases, the distribution might depend on laws in effect where certain property is located.)
If a deceased person had put assets into a trust, those assets do not go through the probate court and continue to be distributed in accordance with the terms of the trust. Also, money and assets held in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship will automatically pass at the time of the person’s death to the survivor on the account.
The probate process is also an opportunity for creditors to come to court and request payments for any money owed to them. If there are no assets, the creditors will receive no money.
In most cases, the court will make a final accounting of all assets distributed and all creditors paid and then close the probate estate.
Once the estate is closed, creditors that did not appear in court after receiving notice of the probate process might be barred from collecting a debt against the decedent’s estate.
You may want to consult with a lawyer who specializes in probate issues about any specific aspects of your situation. To answer your question in general terms, the debts of the deceased are his or her debts and not the debts of relatives once the estate goes through probate. But in the unlikely event that assets are discovered after the probate process ends, the deceased’s family might have to use that newly found money to pay off debts.
Although the laws and the timing differ from state to state, the intent of the probate process is the same: to distribute assets and pay off the debts of the decedent.
You should know, however, that in some cases the debts of a deceased person can be collected against a spouse or other family member. For example, if you are a secondary user on a deceased person’s credit card, in some circumstances the credit card company might try to collect from you.
The same holds true in some cases with medical bills. A spouse or a child, for example, could find that a hospital wants them to pay the medical bills of their deceased family member. In some states, the spouse or the child are considered a beneficiary of the medical service and can become responsible for the debt in certain circumstances.
Ilyce R. Glink is an author and nationally syndicated columnist. Her latest book is “Buy, Close, Move In!” Samuel J. Tamkin is a real estate lawyer in Chicago. If you have questions for them, write to Real Estate Matters Syndicate, P.O. Box 366, Glencoe, IL, 60022, or contact them through thinkglink.com.