Can I Inherit Debt?

When someone passes away leaving debts behind, you might be wondering if you have any personal liability to pay them. If you have aging parents, for instance, you may be worried about having to assume responsibility for their mortgage payments, … Continue reading →

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When someone passes away leaving debts behind, you might be wondering if you have any personal liability to pay them. If you have aging parents, for instance, you may be worried about having to assume responsibility for their mortgage payments, credit cards or other debts. If you’ve asked yourself, “Can I inherit debt?” the answer is typically no, even though those debts don’t automatically disappear. But there are situations in which you may have to deal with a loved one’s creditors after they’re gone.

How Debts Are Handled When Someone Passes Away

Debts, just like assets, are considered part of a person’s estate. When that person passes away, their estate is responsible for paying any and all remaining debts. The money to pay those debts comes from the asset side of the estate.

In terms of who is responsible for making sure the estate’s debts are paid, this is typically done by an executor. An executor performs a number of duties to wrap up a person’s estate after death, including:

  • Getting a copy of the deceased person’s will if they had one and filing it with the probate court
  • Notifying creditors and other entities of the person’s death (for example, the Social Security Administration would need to be notified so any Social Security benefits could be stopped)
  • Completing an inventory of the deceased person’s assets and their value
  • Liquidating those assets as needed to pay off any debts owed by the estate
  • Distributing the remaining assets to the people or organizations named in the deceased person’s will if they had one or according to inheritance laws if they did not

In terms of debt repayment, executors are required to give notice to creditors who may have a claim against the estate. Creditors are then giving a certain window of time, according to state laws, in which to make a financial claim against the estate’s assets for repayment of debts.

If a creditor doesn’t follow state guidelines for making a claim, then those debts won’t be paid from the estate’s assets. But if creditors are less than reputable, they may try to come after the deceased person’s spouse, children or other family members to collect what’s owed.

Not all assets in an estate may be used to repay debts owed by a deceased person. Any assets that already have a named beneficiary, such as a life insurance policy, a 401(k), individual retirement account, payable on death accounts or annuity, would be transferred to that beneficiary automatically.

Can I Inherit Debt From My Parents?

This is an important question to ask if your parents are carrying high amounts of debt and you’re worried about having to pay those bills when they pass away. Again, the short answer is usually no. You generally don’t inherit debts belonging to someone else the way you might inherit property or other assets from them. So even if a debt collector attempts to request payment from you, there’d be no legal obligation to pay.

The catch is that any debts left outstanding would be deducted from the estate’s assets. If your parents were substantially in debt when they passed away, repaying them from the estate may leave little or no assets for you to inherit.

But you should know that you can inherit debt that you were already legally responsible for while your parents were alive. For instance, if you cosigned a loan with them or opened a joint credit card account or line of credit, those debts are legally yours just as much as they are your parents. So, once they pass away, you’d be solely responsible for repaying them.

And it’s also important to understand what responsibility you may have for covering long-term care costs incurred by your parents while they were alive. Many states have filial responsibility laws that require children to cover nursing home bills, though they aren’t always enforced. Talking to your parents about long-term care planning can help you avoid situations where you may end up with an unexpected debt to pay.

Can I Inherit Debt From My Children?

The same rules that apply to inheriting debt from parents typically apply to inheriting debts from children. Any debts remaining would be paid using assets from their state.

Otherwise, unless you cosigned for the debt, then you wouldn’t be obligated to pay. On the other hand, if you cosigned private student loans, a car loan or a mortgage for your adult child who then passed away, as cosigner you’d technically have a legal responsibility to pay them. Federal student loans are an exception.

If your parents took out a PLUS loan to pay for your higher education costs and something happens to you, the Department of Education can discharge that debt due to death. And vice versa, if your parents pass away then any PLUS loans they took out on your behalf could also be discharged.

Can I Inherit Debts From My Spouse?

When marriage and money mix, the lines on inherited debt can get a little blurred. The same basic rule that applies to other situations applies here: if you cosigned or took out a joint loan or line of credit together, then you’re both equally responsible for the debt. If one of you passes away, the surviving spouse would still have to pay.

But what about debts that are in one spouse’s name only? That’s where it’s important to understand how living in a community property state can affect your liability for marital debts. If you live in a community property state, debts incurred after the marriage by one spouse can be treated as a shared financial obligation. So if your spouse opened up a credit card or took out a business loan, then passed away you could still be responsible for paying it. On the other hand, debts incurred by either party before the marriage wouldn’t be considered community debt.

Consider Getting Help If You Need It

If a parent, spouse, sibling or other family member passes away, it can be helpful to talk to an attorney if you’re being pressured by debt collectors to pay. An attorney who understands debt collection laws and estate planning can help you determine what your responsibilities are for repaying debts and how to handle creditors.

The Bottom Line

Whether or not you’ll inherit debt from your parents, child, spouse or anyone else largely hinges on whether you cosigned for that debt or live in a community property state in the case of married couples. If you’re concerned about inheriting debts, consider talking to your parents, children or spouse about how those financial obligations would be handled if they were to pass away. Likewise, you can also discuss what financial safety nets you have in place to clear any debts you may leave behind, such as life insurance.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about how to manage and pay off debts you owe or any debts you might inherit from someone else. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be difficult. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect with an advisor in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get your personalized advisor recommendations online. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act caps the statute of limitations for unpaid debt collections at a maximum of six years, although most states specify a much shorter time frame. However, some debt collectors buy so-called zombie debts for pennies on the dollar and then – unscrupulously – try to collect on them. Here’s how to deal with such operators.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/NiseriN, ©iStock.com/AndreyPopov, ©iStock.com/FatCamera

Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, CreditCards.com and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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