Debt from the deceased can be complex

This was originally published on Monday, May 9 ,2016 in the Pacific Daily News.  Click here to subscribe to the PDN.

Q: My father is terminally ill and I am in the process of getting his affairs in order. He has an updated will and I have confirmed that my mother is named as his beneficiary for his life insurance and retirement plan. My main concern is his debt. He took out a large loan several years to help with his medical treatments. He is not behind on his payments but I am curious to what happens to the debt once he passes. Could you help me understand how debt is paid off once the lean holder is deceased?

A: I am so sorry to hear about your father’s illness. As a child it is hard having to switch roles and become the caretaker for our parents. Unfortunately, when someone dies, their debt does not disappear. The rules to creditors recouping their money is complex and often vary from state to state. Of course, it also depends on the type of loan and if there are others who share the responsibility.

Family members typically are not obligated to pay off the debt of a deceased family member directly from their assets. The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) protects family members from unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices used to collect a debt.

Who is responsible? Take a look at who signed for the debt. If it is a joint debt, then two or more people are responsible for the full debt. The names of those responsible will appear on the promissory note, loan or credit agreement.

Usually there is a clause in the contract that if something should happen to one of the responsible parties and they are unable to pay their portion then the surviving debtor(s) are responsible to pay off the full amount.

If only one person owns the debt, then that person is responsible for that debt. If the estate, the total net worth of an individual that includes land, possessions, cash, and other assets, of the deceased doesn’t have enough money to cover the debt, the debt may go unpaid. If the estate has money, then the assets from the estate will be used to pay off the debt.

Type of debt

Depending on what type of debt the deceased leaves behind will also determine if the debt will be repaid.

  • Credit card. If the credit card is joint with someone else or has a cosigner(s) then the cosigner(s) are responsible for paying off the debt. Otherwise depending on the amount left the credit card company may pursue collecting what is due.
  • Mortgage. If you are inheriting a house with a mortgage you will inherit the debt as well. If you cannot make the payments, you may have to sell the home. If you are having trouble paying the mortgage, it could affect your credit score if your name is on the note secured by the mortgage.
  • Medical. Medical expenses are usually on top of the priority list to of debts to pay.
  • Taxes. If your loved one passed and left unpaid property or income taxes, the estate will be responsible to pay them. They too can put a lien on assets till the debt is paid off. The deceased will be responsible to pay any income tax on income earned during the year of their death.

Michael Camacho is president and chief executive officer of Personal Finance Center. He has more than 20 years of experience in retail banking and at financial institutions in Guam and Hawaii. If there is a topic you’d like Michael to cover, please email him at moneymattersguam@yahoo .com and read past columns at the Money Matters blog at www.moneymattersguam .wordpress.com.

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