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Can You Inherit Debt?

Can You Inherit Debt?

by

JG Wentworth

November 6, 2023

6 min

Book of debt inheritance laws

Inheriting wealth or assets from a loved one can be a mixed blessing. While it can bring financial stability and security, there’s often a nagging question at the back of one’s mind: can you inherit their debt? The short answer is yes, it’s possible to inherit debt, but the circumstances and extent of this responsibility vary greatly. Let’s break down the different scenarios where inheriting debt may occur, and steps you should take if you feel you are wrongly pursued for said debt

The information is provided for educational and informational purposes only. Such information or materials do not constitute and are not intended to provide legal, accounting, or tax advice and should not be relied on in that respect. We suggest that You consult an attorney, accountant, and/or financial advisor to answer any financial or legal questions.

Inheriting spousal debt 

 When a spouse passes away, the responsibility for their debt can differ based on several factors, including: state laws, community property rules, and whether the surviving spouse was a co-signer on the debt. In community property states (e.g., California, Texas), debts incurred during a marriage can be considered shared responsibility. In other states, the surviving spouse may be liable only if they were a co-signer or if the debt benefited both partners.

Inheriting parental debt 

 In most cases, children are not responsible for their parents’ debts. Debts are typically the responsibility of the deceased person’s estate. If there are not enough assets in the estate to cover the debts, they may go unpaid. This generally does not pass to the children unless they were co-signers on the debt. 
However, there is an exception when children can inherit a parent’s debt: if they willingly assume the debt. This means they take over the responsibility to pay off the debt as part of their inheritance. 

Inheriting debt from other relatives

Debts of other relatives, like siblings or cousins, are generally not inherited by family members. The responsibility to pay off these debts typically falls on the deceased person’s estate. As with one’s parents, you are usually not liable unless you were a co-signer on the debt.  

Estate’s role in inherited debt 

When someone passes away, their estate is responsible for settling their debts. This process involves identifying and assessing the deceased person’s debts, using their assets to pay those debts, and distributing any remaining assets to heirs or beneficiaries. Creditors typically have a limited time to file claims against the estate to collect on debts. Once the estate’s assets are exhausted, any remaining unpaid debts may go unpaid.  

Co-signers and joint accounts

As we mentioned, one of the leading causes for inheriting a loved one’s debt is by being a co-signer. The most common reason someone would co-sign another person’s debt is to help them qualify for a loan or credit they may not otherwise be approved for. If you were a co-signer or joint account holder with the deceased person, you may be legally responsible for their debt. In these cases, you must make arrangements to pay it off or else your own credit score could be negatively impacted.   

Understanding the probate process

The probate process plays a critical role in determining how debts are handled after someone’s passing. During probate, the court oversees the distribution of assets, including handling the payment of debts. This is the point in which creditors are typically notified, giving them an opportunity to make claims on the deceased person’s estate. The court then prioritizes the order in which debts are paid from the estate’s assets, and whether or not a relative or loved one is responsible for settling the amount owed.

Knowing your rights 

Debt collectors may contact family members and heirs after a loved one’s death to collect on their debt. It’s important to understand your rights in this situation. If you find yourself in this situation, remember that you are not generally personally responsible for the debt of a relative or loved one unless you were a co-signer. If you believe you are being wrongly pursued for a deceased person’s debt, it’s essential to request verification of the debt from the creditor and seek legal advice if necessary to protect your interests. 

Conclusion 

Inheriting debt is a complex and often emotionally-charged issue. Understanding your rights and responsibilities in these situations is crucial. Keep in mind that, in most cases, you are not personally responsible for a loved one’s debt unless you were a co-signer or jointly held the debt. If you have concerns or face debt collection efforts related to a deceased person’s debt, consult with legal and financial professionals to ensure your rights are protected and understood. 

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