When a loved one dies, an already difficult experience can be made much more stressful if that loved one held a significant amount of debt. Fortunately, the law addresses how an individual’s debts can be paid after he or she is deceased.
When a person dies, his or her assets are gathered into an estate. Some assets are not included in this process. Assets owned jointly between the deceased and another person pass directly to the other person automatically. If there are liens on the property at that time, they will stay on the property, but no new liens can be placed on the property for debts in the name of the deceased. Similarly, debt jointly in the name of the deceased and another party may continue to be collected from the other party. In community property states, such as Wisconsin, all assets and debts are the joint property of both spouses and pass automatically from one to the other.
From the pool of assets in the estate, an Personal Representative is required to pay all just debts. This means that, before a beneficiary may receive anything, all debts must be satisfied. Property might be sold to create liquidity in order to accomplish this. If there are more debts than there are assets, the estate must sell of as many assets as possible to pay off the creditors. If there is no money in the estate, the creditor can not collect anything. Rather than force people into this tiresome process, many creditors will agree to discharge a debt upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate or obituary. This is particularly true of small, unsecured debts. Life insurance proceeds were never owned by the decedent and should pass to a beneficiary without consequence to the estate. Proceeds of a retirement account may also be exempt from debts.
If creditors continue harassing the beneficiaries of debtors, they may be violating federal regulations under the FDCPA. They can be held accountable by their actions, either by the FTC, the state attorney general, or a private consumer law attorney.