Debts and the Deceased

The DC 37 Muncipal Employees Legal Services (MELS) answers your questions about the debts of deceased loved ones, especially during this coronavirus pandemic. 

Am I responsible for paying off the debts of a deceased relative? 

Generally, the answer is, no. Responsibility for a deceased relative’s outstanding obligation is not automatically transferred to a surviving relative. 

Are debts extinguished when the debtor dies? 

No. Outstanding debts remain active. Payment of the debts becomes the responsibility of the decedent’s estate. If there are no assets in the estate, meaning the decedent left behind nothing of value with which to pay outstanding obligations, the obligations often go unpaid. 

Can I, as a surviving relative, ever be held responsible for the deceased’s outstanding debts? 

Yes. There are circumstances under which a surviving relative can be held responsible for payment, such as: 

– If a surviving family member co-signed for one (or more) of the deceased relative’s debts, the surviving family member may be responsible for payment of the debt(s), 

-If a surviving family member is the executor of the deceased’s estate, and is therefore responsible for settling the debts of the estate, with the assets of the estate, and fails to do so.

-If a deceased person’s spouse was responsible for payment of certain health-care-related expenses under a state law. 

What if there was no will? 

The lack of a will does not mean that there is no estate. If a relative dies intestate (without a will), the estate will be controlled by intestacy laws. In such cases the court may appoint a representative or an administrator to manage the estate and to settle outstanding obligations.   

What if debt collectors start calling? 

– Debt collectors are permitted to speak to a deceased person’s spouse, parents (if the deceased was a minor), a guardian, executor, or administrator about a deceased person’s debts. Collectors are not permitted to speak to anyone else about the nature of the debts. 

– Collectors are permitted to contact third parties to obtain contact information of the deceased’s spouse, executor, administrator, or anyone else authorized to pay the deceased’s debts. Collectors are permitted to make such a call only once, unless the collector has reasonable cause to believe that information provided was inaccurate. Collectors may not discuss the nature of the debt with third parties. 

What if I feel I am being harassed by collectors? 

-To stop a collector from contacting you about a deceased person’s debts you must send notice in writing to the collector stating that you do not want any further contact. 

-Send the original letter by certified mail, return receipt, so that you can track and document the date upon which the collector received the letter. Keep a copy of your letter for your files. 

-If you are responsible for paying the debt, as executor, administrator, or co-obligor, be aware that although collection letters and phone calls may have stopped, the debt will remain active and creditors may resort to the Courts for collection. 

Be aware of scams.

Unless a surviving relative is responsible for paying a debt for one of the reasons listed above, responsibility for payment of the debt of a deceased relative does not attach to surviving relatives. Unfortunately, there are those who seek to frighten and bully people into paying debts that may not be there’s. Before agreeing to make payments on a debt you are not sure is your responsibility, please call (212) 815-1111 to speak with an attorney at MELS. 

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