Who is responsible for paying a deceased relative's debts?

The loss of a loved one is difficult to cope with, but if the loved one left debts behind, it can be even tougher. It's important to know who is responsible – and who is not responsible – for the debts of a deceased person.

This is especially true because creditors and debt collectors have become very aggressive lately about contacting a deceased person's family members and trying to get them to pay debts. In addition, many scam artists will read an obituary and then contact the deceased person's relatives, posing as creditors so they can gather information and steal their identity.

An attorney can help you sort out what you actually owe, and can take steps to force debt collectors to stop contacting you.

In general, when a person dies, that person's estate becomes responsible for any debts the person owed. The person's executor or personal representative is responsible for paying those debts out of the property of the estate. So in general, no relative of a deceased person should have to pay any debts, unless that person is independently liable for them because he or she co-signed a loan or jointly assumed an obligation.

For instance, a relative might be liable to pay a mortgage or a car loan, but only if he or she co-signed the loan documents. A relative might also be liable for credit card debt, but only if the relative was a joint owner of the card. (If the relative was an "authorized user" but not a "joint owner," then the relative wouldn't be liable.)

As for medical bills and other debts, unless someone else signed an agreement promising to pay these, only the estate is responsible for paying them. If the estate doesn't have enough assets to pay them, then the creditor is out of luck. Relatives of the deceased person have no legal obligation to pay them…even though creditors will sometimes try to make them think otherwise.