(Editor's note: The following Q&A was submitted by Mystic Valley Elder Services Executive Director Dan O'Leary. The non-profit serves Melrose and seven other communities north of Boston.)
My father died last year with a fair amount of debt. As his memory deteriorated, he frequently forgot to pay the utilities and his credit card bills. There are also medical bills in his name from the months before his death. My sister and I have started getting calls from debt collectors asking us to make payments on his debt. My sister says that we aren’t legally required to pay our dad’s debts. Is that true? And if it is, how do I get these creditors to leave us alone?
Let me put your mind to ease right away: you are not legally obligated for your dad’s debt. Unless your name is on the credit card account or you co-signed a loan for your father, you’re free and clear. Generally speaking, children, siblings, and other relatives of a deceased person can inherit assets (property, money), but cannot not inherit debt.
A person’s estate is like a legal box holding everything they owned at the time they died. This property will sit in the box long enough for creditors of the deceased to make claims against the estate. If there are any assets left in the estate after the bills have been paid, they will go to the deceased person’s heirs. If the box is emptied before the creditors are all paid, the heirs receive nothing and the unpaid debt expires.
Unfortunately, we know that doesn’t stop the creditors from calling.
There have been a number of reports over the past several years of creditors using misleading tactics to get payment from deceased people’s relatives. Many creditors are trained to sound compassionate and they may even make you feel as though they’re doing you a favor by offering to set up a payment plan. The truth is, they are trying to get you to make payments on a debt that isn’t your responsibility.
When a debt collector calls, tell them that they can make a claim against your relative’s estate, and give them the contact information for the lawyer or executor handling your relative’s affairs. The federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act protects you from unfair, abusive, or deceptive practices by debt collectors, and Massachusetts law prohibits a collector from threatening to take legal action against you when you don’t have responsibility for the debt. Make it clear to the creditor that you know about the laws protecting you. If the calls persist, send a registered letter to the creditor requesting that they cease contacting you; you can also file a complaint with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office.
It’s worth noting that in some cases, spouses may have responsibility for joint debt. Even in those cases, however, the federal and state laws prevent creditors from harassing you or using deceptive practices. If your spouse has recently died and you are receiving calls from creditors, make sure to talk to your estate attorney to find out your rights.
Are you an elder with a question about aging? Are you in a dilemma caring for an aging or disabled family member? Mystic Valley Elder Services’ trained advisors are available for no-cost consultations by calling 781-324-7705.
Do you have a question? Write to Dan O'Leary, Attn: Q&A, Mystic Valley Elder Services, 300 Commercial St., #19, Malden, Massachusetts, 02148 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.