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.
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.
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.
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.
- Federal Trade Commission: Paying the Debts of a Deceased Relative: Who Is Responsible?
- New York Times: You're Dead? That Won't Stop the Debt Collector?
- Nolo: Debt and Marriage: When Do I Owe my Spouse's Debts?
- New York Times: Inheriting a Home, and a Loan
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Consumer Laws and Regulations: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA)
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.