Do I have to pay my dead mother's debts?

Written by ciele edwards
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Do I have to pay my dead mother's debts?
(Zedcor Wholly Owned/PhotoObjects.net/Getty Images)

When a loved one dies and leaves behind unsecured debts, such as credit card debts and hospital bills, its isn't uncommon for family members to eventually hear from debt collectors concerning the unpaid balances. In most circumstances, however, your deceased mother's debts aren't your responsibility.

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Facts

Unless you signed for the original account, you aren't legally liable for any debts your mother leaves behind. The New York Times notes, however, that your lack of legal responsibility for the debt will not prevent debt collectors from contacting you about the unpaid account balance. If you cannot afford to pay off your mother's debts after her death, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act gives you the right to forbid debt collectors from contacting you by putting your request in writing and mailing it to the company that is contacting you about the debt.

Considerations

If you shared a joint account with your mother, the entire balance owed on the account becomes your responsibility after her death -- even if she was the one that incurred the debt in question. Joint credit card balances are a common example of this scenario. After the death of one account holder, full liability for the outstanding balance transfers to the surviving account holder.

Misconceptions

If your mother's credit card company officially recognised your right to use her credit cards, but you didn't originally apply for the original account with your mother, you are an authorised user. Authorised users are the reverse of joint account holders, as they can incur debt but are not liable for the charges. Many individuals confuse joint account holders with authorised users.

Significance

After your mother's death, her estate goes into probate. State laws differ concerning the distribution of assets, but her creditors must file a claim with the probate court to receive payment from her estate. Even if you don't notify your mother's creditors of her estate, many creditors utilise computer programs that routinely scan court records for estates against which the creditor can levy a claim. Although you don't have to pay the debts yourself, creditors' claims against your mother's estate can reduce your inheritance.

Effects

Not everyone leaves behind assets. If your mother dies insolvent or does not leave behind enough assets to cover her total debt load, her creditors have little choice but to write off her debts as a tax loss. The Internal Revenue Service allows creditors to claim uncollectible debts as a business tax deductions.

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