Executors. Once a person—called a decedent in estate planning and probate circles—dies, someone else has to step in to manage all the property issues. This person is called an executor or personal representative. The executor is responsible for telling all the decedent’s creditors about the death and letting them file claims. If there’s enough property in the estate to cover the debts, the creditors get paid. If there’s not, some of them won’t get their money back. In no event, however, does an executor or decedent’s family have to use his or her own personal property to pay for any estate debts.
Co-Debtors and Community Property. The one exception to other people not being responsible for paying the decedent’s debts is when there are co-debtors. If, for example, a married couple has a joint credit card and one of them dies, the other is still responsible for paying the credit card debt even if that spouse never used the card. Spouses may also be responsible for some debts in community property states. (Talk to your lawyer to find out what a community property state is and how it applies to you.)
Collections Agents. It’s important to know that even though other family members are not obligated to pay the decedent’s debts, that doesn’t mean debt collectors or collections agencies won’t try to convince you that it’s your responsibility. If you’re contacted by a debt collector who tries to get you to pay for an estate debt, contact the estate executor or your attorney right away. The collector’s actions may be illegal, and you need advice about what to do.