If your mother died leaving hundreds or thousands of dollars in medical bills, you may wonder whether the responsibility of paying those bills falls on your shoulders. Fortunately, indebtedness, including medical bills, does not pass to the deceased's survivors, so you're not personally responsible. If your mother left an estate, the estate is responsible for paying bills before the remainder of the assets are divided to your mother's heirs.
Appointment of Personal Representative
If your mother left a will, a person in possession of her will should petition the probate court to prove the validity of the will. After the probate court deems the will valid, the court will issue letters testamentary to the personal representative of your mother’s estate. If your mother had a will, she likely named a representative, or executor, in the will. If she did not name an executor or died without a will, the probate court will determine your mother’s heirs and appoint an administrator. The probate court will then issue letters of administration to the administrator of your mother’s estate.
Personal Representative's Duties
If your mother passed away leaving behind medical expenses, the administrator or executor of her estate has a duty to pay those medical expenses. He should first take inventory of your mother’s assets and have the assets appraised, then notify your mother’s creditors that she has passed away. Notice gives creditors an opportunity to submit their claims. The administrator or executor must then pay creditor claims according to priority.
Priority of Creditors' Claims
The priority in which the creditors receive payment can vary depending on the state in which your mother resided. A typical example of priority of claims held against the estate is: funeral expenses; the administrator’s or executor's expenses in administering the estate; expenses incurred in treating the decedent’s last illness; federal taxes; and secured debts and all other claims. If the estate does not have the assets to cover the cost of your mother’s medical bills, you do not have to pay those bills. For example, the administrator or executor could run out of money after paying funeral expenses and expenses incurred through administering the estate. In that instance, the probate court will not order you or anyone else to pay the remainder of your mother’s debts.
Personal Representative's Fiduciary Duties
The letters testamentary and the letters of administration give the estate’s executor or administrator the authority to act on the estate’s behalf when dealing with third parties; he acts as a fiduciary for the decedent’s estate by taking control of the decedent’s assets, paying the decedent’s debts and distributing all remaining assets. The probate court holds the administrator or executor to an ethical standard of trust, honesty and loyalty in winding up the affairs of a decedent’s estate.
- Washington State Probate: An Insolvent Decedent’s Estate
- Utah State Bar: Creditors’ Claims and Estate Administration
- Superior Court of California County of Alameda: FAQ’s -- Probate a Decedent’s Estate
- Online Delaware Code: Letters Testamentary and Letters of Administration
- The Law Offices of Platt & Westby: Responsibilities of the Personal Representative