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Executor not personally liable for deceased's card bill

By  |  Published: June 16, 2017

To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.
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Question Dear To Her Credit,
My mother-in-law was a widow, and she recently passed away. She had one unsecured credit card with a balance of $17,000. No one else’s name was on the card. She had no co-signer, authorized user or anything, and no one else used the card.

Her will did not specify that her debts must be paid. There was no money, no assets at all in her estate. Is the personal representative responsible for paying her credit card bill?  – Diane

Answer

Dear Diane,
It doesn’t matter if a person’s will says that their debts must be paid. Creditors have a right to be paid from a person’s estate when there are enough assets left in the estate to do so.

Every state has laws that address how money from an estate must be used to pay final expenses (such as medical and burial expenses), taxes, secured debts such as mortgages and car loans, and unsecured debts such as credit card bills. The personal representative or other person responsible for settling the estate must follow state laws for determining who gets paid first, and how money is divided if there’s not enough to pay all creditors in full.

If a personal representative does not follow state laws regarding disbursements of money from an estate, the representative could be held liable for the amount they should have paid to the creditors.

It’s important for the personal representative to make an accounting of all the deceased person’s assets and debts before closing the estate. Sometimes people assume there is no money, but then a bank statement comes in for a forgotten account, or the last Social Security and pension payments cause the checking account to have a positive balance. The deceased person may even have vehicles or real estate that should be liquidated to pay expenses and debts.

The representative must keep good records, and be careful not to disburse funds or other assets to heirs prematurely. Estate laws can be complex. If the representative has any questions, get qualified legal counsel in the state where your mother-in-law lived.

When there really is no money in the estate, the personal representative is not responsible for paying the credit card bill. If your husband is the personal representative, for example, he is not required to pay his mother’s credit card bills with his own money. In fact, he should feel no obligation to do so.

If he hasn’t done so already, your mother-in-law’s personal representative should notify the credit card company, first by phone and then by mail, that she has died. Any physical credit cards and credit card information that could be used to make charges should be secured.

The personal representative also may need to file a form in your mother-in-law’s state to list her assets and show how they were disbursed to pay for expenses and on behalf of creditors.

Credit card companies build enough gross profit into their business model to cover potential losses when their customers die.

While it would be wrong to take advantage of this get-out-of-debt-free card, for instance by running up huge credit card bills near the end of life, it’s also nothing for survivors to feel bad about when someone dies and leaves behind more debts than the estate can pay. For the banks, it’s a cost of doing business.

Taking care of someone’s estate and tying up the loose ends of a life is a huge job that often takes a lot more time and energy than survivors expect. I wish you all well as the family sorts out things and gets through this difficult time.

See related: How to handle collection calls for a dead person's debt, Settling parent's financial affairs after death, Handling a loved one's debt after death

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Updated: 08-18-2017

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