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Are Heirs Responsible for Their Loved One’s Debts?

Davidson Estate Law Oct. 7, 2022

Man using calculator for calculate expenses accounts.Coping with the death of a loved one is never easy, and healing can be made even more difficult if you’ve also been named the estate executor. If you’re the administrator of the estate, you’ll be responsible for moving the estate through probate, distributing assets to the named beneficiaries, and addressing any outstanding debts. To do this, you need to be aware of what happens to the debts of someone when they pass away and the responsibilities of their heirs.  

For help with this or any aspect of estate or probate administration, call us at Davidson Estate Law in Oakland, California. We work with clients throughout the area, including Walnut Creek, Berkeley, San Francisco, El Cerrito, Alameda, and the Bay Area. 

Do Debts Go Away After Passing Away?  

In most cases, a person’s debts do not simply go away after they die and will have to be addressed in some way. This is typically done when the estate goes through the probate process. The administrator is responsible for notifying all creditors of the person’s passing and giving them enough time to collect on any outstanding debts, which is typically about four months. If a creditor submits a request for payment, the administrator can use funds from the estate to pay the debt or they can dispute it.  

Note that the creditor still has the right to bring a lawsuit forward if you refuse to pay. It’s also worth noting that debts can only be paid if there’s enough money in the estate to cover them. In instances where the deceased didn’t leave behind assets of much value, the debts are typically left unpaid.  

Estate Administration  

Unless assets have already been transferred into a trust, they generally must go through the probate process. During estate administration, the executor will work with the local court to “prove” the will and ensure all assets are accounted for and all outstanding debts are addressed. This is a big responsibility and one that should only be undertaken by someone who can stay organized and attentive to details.  

Before any assets can be distributed to beneficiaries, the executor must make a reasonable effort to contact creditors and make arrangements about paying off debts. They do not have to use their own money to do this; rather, they should use the assets to pay off past-due debts. This could mean that the actual payout to heirs is less than expected if there was a large amount of outstanding debt.  

Who Is Responsible for a Deceased Relative’s Debts?  

Importantly, no one else is held responsible for a deceased relative’s debts, so if you’re an heir, you will not be personally or legally required to pay off your loved one’s debts. The only exception to this rule would be if the debt was co-owned with someone else such as a spouse, family member, business partner, or cosigner on a loan.    

What to Do if a Debt Collector Harasses the Relative of the Deceased Debtor  

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) protects surviving family members and estate administrators from any harassment from collectors. Collectors are permitted to contact the family once to get contact information for the executor (or whoever is responsible for paying the debt), but they cannot discuss the actual debt or use any abusive or threatening language. If this does happen, you should send a letter to the collector asking them to stop contacting you, and it’s also a good idea to contact an estate administration attorney who can help you with this process.  

Estate Administration Attorneys in Oakland, California 

If you’re in the Oakland, California, area and have been recently named the estate administrator for a loved one, call us at Davidson Estate Law to learn more about your responsibilities regarding the deceased's debt.