Is widow liable for husband's debt consolidation contract?

To Her Credit columnist 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, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question Dear Sally,
My sister and her husband used a debt consolidation company to combine his credit card debt. She has never worked, and the debts were all in his name. He was recently diagnosed with cancer, and he died last week. Is she liable for the debt consolidation contract? They live in West Virginia. – Linda


Dear Linda,
West Virginia is not a community property state, which means your sister is not generally liable for her husband’s debt acquired during marriage. If she did not sign the contract with the debt consolidation company, she should not be liable for the payments.

Unfortunately, that may not mean she is entirely off the hook. If she did sign the contract with the debt consolidation company, she is liable for the debt. Because she has never worked and the debts were not hers, let’s hope her husband was the only one who actually signed.

This debt could still affect the amount she receives from her husband’s estate. The estate is responsible for paying your brother-in-law’s debts, including this one. If his estate goes through probate, his personal representative or executor uses his assets to pay bills as directed by state law. She and any of his heirs receive what is left.

The estate cannot always use all of a person’s assets to pay debts. For example, when someone owns a house, state homestead laws are intended to keep creditors from trying to force the surviving spouse to sell.

Be sure to tell your sister not to believe everything creditors tell her, or to fall for their pressure tactics. I can tell you from experience that creditors will say anything to get to the front of the line after someone dies so they can get paid. They may call and express condolences, and then say, “And how would you like to pay this today?” And then they can get cranky if the relative doesn’t provide their bank account number or credit card. You can’t blame collectors for trying, especially if they suspect they will never get paid otherwise. It’s important for your sister to resist the urge to pay her husband’s separate bills before she knows exactly which bills should be handled by the estate, which ones she should pay, and which bills may not be paid at all.

If your sister is short on funds, she may think she can’t afford legal help. However, the right legal help can be crucial at a time like this. I recommend that she find low cost or free legal aid in West Virginia as soon as she can, to make sure everything is handled properly. Getting the right help will reassure her that creditors cannot come back to bother her in the months and years to come, and take some of the burden from her as she goes through this difficult time.

See related: 6 debt consolidation traps and how to avoid them

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Updated: 01-20-2018