If a creditor tells you you're obligated to pay your late spouse's debts, don't assume it's true. Don't pay off any of your spouse's debts unless you're certain you're obligated to pay, because in many cases, you aren't. Creditors and bill collectors may call hoping you're too grief-stricken to think clearly, so don't let them take advantage of your loss.
Your spouse's executor pays off your spouse's debts as part of settling the estate. The executor notifies creditors about the death, which sets a clock ticking: if they don't file a claim by your state's deadline, the estate doesn't have to pay. The executor reviews the claims that do come in and pays off the valid ones until the estate runs out of money. At that point, your spouse's debts are usually as dead as he is -- but there are exceptions.
When you and your spouse have a joint credit-card account, you're as liable for his spending as he is. Even if all the spending on the card is his, the credit-card company can come after you if the estate doesn't have enough cash to settle the bill. The same rule applies if it's your account but he was an authorized user. If the card was in his name alone, the debts are his too.
Common Law or Community
Another factor in whether you must pay is whether you live in a community property state. Community property law says debts and income one spouse acquires during marriage belong to both spouses. If your spouse's estate can't pay, his creditors can come after your assets. In common-law states, by contrast, your spouse's debts are usually, but not always, the estate's responsibility. If the debt was for marital necessities such as food, medicine or housing, for example, you may be on the hook for the money.
When someone calls you about paying your spouse's debts, refer him to the executor. It's her job to deal with your spouse's creditors, and separate real creditors from scam artists. Once probate wraps up, unpaid creditors may keep calling. If a creditor claims you owe money, talk to a lawyer before you write the check. If the caller discusses your moral obligation to settle the debt, that's probably a sign you have no legal requirement to pay -- but he's hoping to guilt you into it.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.