When someone dies, his or her other debts die with them, although the probate estate does have an obligation to pay creditors, if there is an estate. However, many people who are behind on their bills have little or no estate that requires probate. Surviving family members rarely have a legal obligation to pay debts unless they have co-signed on a loan, such as a mortgage or a credit card. Survivors are not legally responsible if the loan or account was solely in the name of the decedent. Most debts are for credit cards, and rarely for hospital bills or doctor’s bills.

Beware of debt collectors who target survivors, saying that there is a moral obligation or a family obligation to pay, especially when you may have benefited from the debt that a loved one incurred. Such debt collection calls and letters may come when you are most vulnerable, and the calls or letters may appear to be sympathetic, including offers of condolences. Do not be misled.

Even if you are pursuing a lawsuit for injuries sustained by your loved one, debts are not payable until recoveries are paid in the lawsuit. Do not feel under any obligation to make a deal with a debt collector. You are under no obligation to engage in telephone conversations with debt collectors. Be firm with them and simply refer them to your estate attorney or your family attorney and tell them that they should no longer call you.

Make sure you know your legal obligation, if any, to pay, before agreeing to anything. You should take the time to consider carefully whether you wish to obligate yourself to pay a debt owed by a loved one before they died. Do not let a debt collector cloud your judgment about what might or might not be the moral thing to do.

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