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What Happens to Debt After Death?

Personal Finance
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If you have debt in your name or you're thinking about estate planning, you may want to know more about what happens to debt after death. It may be tempting to ignore the issue or assume the worst, but learning the facts could help you plan for your family's future. Here's what you should know.

Who Pays for Debts When You Die?

Unfortunately, your debt does not die with you. You're responsible for any loans you agree to during your life.

After death, your estate, which is made up of your remaining assets, becomes responsible for your financial affairs. A personal representative (generally known as an executor) handles these finances for you.

Before giving property to your heirs, the personal representative will have to satisfy your debts. To do so, they'll likely gather information about what you own and what you owe, and they'll pay creditors out of your available assets.

In most cases, as long as you apply for loans individually, your estate is responsible for paying — not your family members. But the details vary from state to state, so consider seeking guidance from a legal expert in your state.

How Debts Could Eat Into Assets

Paying off loans is easy if you have enough cash in the bank to satisfy your debts. But if you don't have sufficient assets available, your executor may need to sell assets in your estate to generate cash. Those assets could include investments, valuables and other property.

What about your family home? You may worry that loved ones will lose your home if you have a significant mortgage balance. Fortunately, federal law allows heirs to take over your mortgage in some cases, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). But as with any loan, your heirs need to be able to keep up with payments or they could risk losing the property.

When Are Your Heirs Responsible?

In some cases, your loved ones may need to pay off your debts. That can happen if they agreed to take on debt with you or if they're otherwise obligated to pay. For example, survivors may be responsible due to:

  • Joint borrowing: If you apply for a loan jointly with somebody else, both parties may be held responsible. That can happen with large loans like mortgages.

  • Cosigning: If somebody helps you qualify for a loan by cosigning with you, they are typically responsible for the debt.

  • Allowing an authorized user: If somebody adds you as an authorized user on their credit card and you add debt to that card, the primary cardholder must pay off the debt because it's in their name — not yours.

  • Community property states: In certain states, spouses may be at least partially responsible for the debts of a deceased spouse.

Because your estate pays creditors out of your assets, your heirs receive less than they would have otherwise received. As a result, heirs effectively pay for your debts even if they don't actually pay money to anyone.

How Life Insurance May Be Able to Help

A life insurance policy could help your heirs keep their options open by providing a death benefit to help pay off your debts. If your heirs are concerned about ongoing housing payments, a death benefit could help make it easier to keep the home by providing cash to help cover debts and mortgage payments. However, you'll need to make sure you have the correct beneficiaries listed on your policy so the right individuals receive the death benefit.

The same is true for other assets. Instead of being forced to sell — possibly at a bad time — your heirs can help pay off debts with a life insurance death benefit.

When Are Debts Forgiven After You Die?

In some cases, lenders cancel or forgive debts at death, leaving more assets available to your survivors. For example, federal student loans should be forgiven after a student dies, even if the parents took out PLUS Loans on the student's behalf, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Debts may also be canceled if your estate doesn't have enough assets to satisfy your creditors. When your estate is insolvent, there is no money leftover for your heirs, and any funds available must go to creditors according to state law. For example, the estate may need to pay funeral expenses and tax debts before paying off credit cards.

By understanding what happens to debt after death, you may be able to better plan for the future. Consider helping your loved ones prepare for any debts they may be responsible for and take steps to minimize the impact on your heirs when possible.

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Information provided is general and educational in nature, and all products or services discussed may not be provided by Western & Southern Financial Group or its member companies (“the Company”). The information is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal or tax advice. The Company does not provide legal or tax advice. Laws of a specific state or laws relevant to a particular situation may affect the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of this information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. The Company makes no warranties with regard to the information or results obtained by its use. The Company disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or reliance on, the information. Consult an attorney or tax advisor regarding your specific legal or tax situation.