Are You Obligated to Pay a Deceased Spouse's Debt If You Are Not on the Loan?

Death doesn't make your spouse's debts disappear, but probate might. As part of probate, the executor uses your spouse's estate to pay off creditors with valid claims. If a creditor doesn't file a claim, or there's not enough money to pay him, there's usually no way he can collect from anyone who isn't a co-signer on the loan.

Legal or Moral

If you don't owe the debt, collection agencies can't legally tell you to pay up. Many agencies work around this by telling you about the debt and letting you assume you're required to pay it off. Some may even claim you have a moral obligation to pay. This isn't a good decision to make when you're stressed and grieving. If the creditors have no legal claim on you, refer them to the executor. Even if you have some obligation, the estate pays first.

Community Property

In community-property states, couples share marital income and debts. When your spouse dies, any marital debts the estate can't pay off become yours. You have no responsibility for her premarital debts. You also have no obligation to pay for her bills during the marriage if you thought ahead and put that provision in a pre-nup or post-nup agreement.

Secured Loan

Loans secured by your spouse's house or car are a different kettle of fish. Federal law guarantees anyone who inherits a house can keep the current mortgage instead of having to take out a new one. If you can't pay, however, the bank can foreclose even if you didn't sign the original promissory note. If you can't pay off a secured debt, you can sell what you inherited or let the lender do it for you.

Debt Collectors

You could find yourself in the unfortunate position of having a debt collector calling you to collect the spouse's debt. Federal law bans debt collectors from using abusive tactics to squeeze money out of you. The collector can't lie about the law, threaten to put you in jail for nonpayment or harass you with late-night calls. If you send a certified letter telling him to stop contacting you, he has to stop. Report debt collectors who break the law to the Federal Trade Commission or your state Attorney General. The federal law doesn't apply to creditors who handle collections in-house.

About the Author

Author of two film reference books, "Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan" and "The Wizard of Oz Catalog." Published in Air & Space, Backpacker, Newsweek, The Writer, and multiple trade journals (can fax samples if requested, don't have them available digitally)