When spouses, parents or others die, their heirs may have concerns about any responsibility they may have to pay the debts the deceased accrued over a lifetime.
In short, the answer is that they have no responsibility. However, just as with many of the complex aspects of estate administration and probate, there are exceptions, and they include:
- Joint debts where the surviving spouse has put in writing that he or she is responsible for the debt of the other.
- Survivors who have already made a good-faith payment on a deceased debtor’s account. While the survivor may believe that this is the right thing to do, they can actually wind up in a financial jam.
For instance, if your father dies and leaves a load of unsecured credit card debt and few assets that could be liquidated to pay it off, his creditors may pursue you for repayment even though you are under no legal obligation to do so. Perhaps you make a few hundred dollar payments on a debt that is in the five figures. Then you suddenly lose your job or have to put in a new furnace or buy a new truck. You can no longer afford to make payments on your dad’s old debt.
The creditor could then make a case that because you appeared to accept responsibility for his debt by the act of making payments, you are now legally liable, and they are within their rights to pursue you for repayment of the total sum owed.
It’s important to understand that any beneficiaries of the estate have to wait for the estate administrator to pay off any legitimate debts of the estate before the distribution of assets that remain can be done.
If you are being pursued by creditors for debts of a deceased relative, the lawyer who is involved with the estate administration may be able to offer guidance.
Source: Debt Canada, “Inherited Debts or Debts after Death,” accessed Nov. 05, 2015 https://www.debtcanada.ca/library/debtors-rights/83-inherited-debts