Debt

What Happens to Debt when You Die?

When a person dies, it’s not unusual for them to leave behind some unpaid debt. What happens to that debt depends upon how their estate was organized, says the article “This is how your unpaid debts are handled if you pass away” from CNBC.com. The estate consists of whatever is owned, whether the person was wealthy or not. It includes financial accounts, real estate and personal possessions.

For surviving spouses, this can be worrisome. In most instances, they are not responsible for their spouse’s debt, but there are some exceptions. Here’s how it works.

Paying off all debts and then distributing the remaining assets is part of the probate process. Every state has its own laws regarding how long creditors have to make a claim against the estate. In some states, it’s a few months, in others it can last a few years. An estate planning attorney in your state will know how long the estate is vulnerable to creditors.

In most states, funeral expenses take priority, then the cost of administering the estate, followed by taxes and hospital and medical bills. However, not all assets are necessarily part of the estate, and this is where estate planning is important.

Life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts and other assets with named beneficiaries go directly to the beneficiaries and do not pass through probate. The same goes for assets placed in trusts, as does jointly owned property, as long as it has been properly titled.

With the right planning, it is possible that an entire estate, including one that is insolvent, could be passed on to heirs outside of probate, leaving creditors high and dry. However, there are a handful of states that have “community property laws” that make debt more complicated.

The law in these states views both assets and certain debt accumulated during the marriage as being owned by both spouses, even if it is only in the decedent’s name. That includes debt like medical expenses or a mortgage. However, that’s not the final word. A well-structured letter with a copy of the death certificate can sometimes lead to the debt being discharged. During the probate process, the company holding the debt should be advised that the estate has little or no assets to cover the debt and ask that it be forgiven.

This does not apply to co-signing on a loan. Although the request can be made, it is not likely to be honored. Federal student loans are forgiven if the student dies, which seems a matter of kindness. Parent PLUS loans, which are loans taken out by parents to help pay for education, are usually discharged, if the student or parent dies.

Your estate planning attorney can help structure your estate to protect your surviving spouse and family members from creditors.

Reference: CNBC.com (July 31, 2020) “This is how your unpaid debts are handled if you pass away”

Which Debts Must Be Paid Before and After Probate?

Everything that has to be addressed in settling an estate becomes more complicated when there is no will and no estate planning has taken place before someone passes away. Debts are a particular area of concern for the estate and the personal representative. What has to be paid, and who gets paid first? These are explained in the article “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate” from The Balance.

probate
Knowing which debts have to be paid before and after probate is important.

Probate is the process of gaining court approval of the estate and paying off final bills and expenses, before property can be transferred to beneficiaries. The process of paying the debts of a deceased person can typically begin before probate officially starts.

Making a list of all of the decedent’s liabilities and looking for the following bills or statements is the best way to begin:

  • Mortgages (and reverse mortgages)
  • Home equity loans
  • Lines of credit
  • Condo fees
  • Property taxes
  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Car and boat loans
  • Personal loans
  • Loans against life insurance policies
  • Loans against retirement accounts
  • Credit card bills
  • Utility bills
  • Cell phone bills

Next, divide those items into two categories: those that will be ongoing during probate—consider them administrative expenses—and those that can be paid off after the probate estate is opened. These are considered “final bills.” Administrative bills include things like mortgages, condo fees, property taxes and utility bills. They must be kept current. Final bills include income taxes, personal loans, credit card bills, cell phone bills and loans against retirement accounts and/or life insurance policies.

The personal representative and heirs should not pay any bills out of their own pockets. The personal representative deals with all of these liabilities in the process of settling the estate.

For some of the liabilities, heirs may have a decision to make about whether to keep the assets with loans. If the beneficiary wants to keep the house or a car, they may, but they have to keep paying down the debt. Otherwise, these payments should be made only by the estate.

The personal representative decides which bills to pay and which assets should be liquidated to pay final bills.

A far better plan for your beneficiaries, is to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a will that details how you want your assets distributed and addresses what your wishes are. If you want to leave a house to a loved one, your estate planning attorney will be able to explain how to make that happen, while minimizing taxes on your estate.

Reference: The Balance (March 21, 2019) “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate”

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