Paying Bills After Someone Dies

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Mortgages, credit card statements, medical bills, student loans, auto payments, and utilities are just some of the outstanding bills that surviving family members may have to manage in the wake of a death. Making those payments can be a major stressor, in part because figuring out what needs to get paid—and when—can be surprisingly complicated. Here’s how to get it all under control.

Understanding probate

Typically, if a person dies with property, assets, and debts, probate is needed to sort everything out. Probate is the judicial process that ensures that the deceased person’s creditors are paid and that any remaining assets or property are distributed properly to their heirs and beneficiaries. The estate executor or a personal representative will be asked to take inventory of all of the deceased’s assets and debts, then use any assets to pay outstanding debts and bills that he or she left behind.

If you are the executor or other responsible settling the estate, make a list of bills including:

  • Mortgage
  • Credit cards
  • Mobile phones
  • Utilities
  • Loans against retirement accounts or insurance policies
  • Auto or boat loans
  • Homeowner association fees
  • Lines of credit
  • Bank loans

Separating administrative expenses and final bills

Bills can be categorized one of two ways. Administrative expenses are any termed debt or ongoing service bills, such as mortgage, rent, utilities, or auto loans. These bills can and should be paid by the executor, even if the probate process hasn’t yet been completed by the beneficiaries named in the will.

Final bills are those where the amount due is static and can be paid all at once at the end of probate. This typically includes credit card bills, medical bills, or taxes. These bills should only be paid once the probate process is complete, by the executor using the assets from the estate. (Related: Do You Have to File Taxes for Someone Who Died?)

Paying attention to co-signers

Co-signers on any loans or bills will be held legally responsible for paying the bills after someone dies. That means, for instance, if a spouse or parent co-signed on a mortgage with the decedent, they’ll be legally responsible for making sure the loan remains in good standing and paying off the remainder of the debt. If they signed on to a student loan, they’ll be responsible for that too. If they are a co-signer on a credit card, the deceased’s payments are now theirs to make.

However, authorized users on credit cards won’t be held responsible for any unpaid charges or interests since they aren’t a co-signer.

When debt falls to a surviving spouse

There are nine community property states—Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin—that have community property laws. (Alaska has an opt-in option for its residents.) Under community property laws, any debts or assets a spouse has after the beginning of a marriage belongs to the other spouse as well. Let’s say you opened a credit card on only your name at the start of your marriage and you die without paying it off. Under community property laws, your spouse will legally be responsible for paying the remainder of the debt after you die. 

That’s not true in other states. If your spouse dies with a $10,000 credit card balance, for instance, the creditor can go after your spouse’s estate to settle the bill. But if the estate doesn’t have $10,000 and you aren’t listed as a co-signer on the card, you’re off the hook for paying that bill. (Related: What Happens to Debt When You Die.)

Don’t be intimidated by debt collectors

When a loved one dies and bills are left unpaid, debt collectors may still attempt to get money from surviving relatives and spouses. If you aren’t legally liable for the bill, you do not have to pay. Send a letter by certified mail to the debt collector, informing them that you don’t wish to be contacted again.

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