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Understanding the Consequences of Your Spouse's Debts After Their Passing

When a spouse passes away, the surviving partner is faced with a difficult and challenging time.

As they grieve, they may also have certain responsibilities related to settling their deceased spouse’s affairs, including the question of whether they are responsible for their deceased spouse’s debt.

In this blog, we will answer the common asked question, “Am I responsible for my deceased spouse’s debt?” and provide a comprehensive overview of the laws surrounding this issue.

Debt in America

A vast majority of Americans have some type of debt, whether it’s credit-card debt, student loans, mortgage debt, or personal loans. The average American has over $90,000 in debt and collectively, Americans owe $14 trillion, with mortgage debt making up the largest portion of this amount. Debt is not limited to a specific age group, and even those in their later years can still have significant debt obligations.

Probate and Debt Payment

When a person passes away, their property is distributed according to their will or legal heirs through a legal process known as probate. During probate, debts are paid before assets are distributed to heirs or beneficiaries. Assets such as life insurance policies, accounts with a named beneficiary, assets in trust, and jointly owned property are not subject to probate. Each state has different rules for prioritizing debt payment, but typically, funeral expenses, estate administration costs, taxes, and other forms of debt are paid in a specific order.

Liability for a Spouse’s Debts

In some cases, you may be responsible for paying off your deceased spouse’s debts. This includes situations where:

  • You cosigned for a loan.

  • You are a joint account holder on a credit card.

  • You live in a community property state that considers a couple’s assets and debts to be jointly owned.

There are nine community property states in the U.S. If you live in one of these states, the debts your spouse incurred during marriage are legally also your debts. If the estate is insolvent and cannot cover its debts, you may be personally liable for paying them, even if they were exclusively in your spouse’s name. Creditors can come after you for debts such as medical expenses and outstanding credit-card balances, and may even have the right to garnish your wages, put a lien on or seize your property, or take money from your bank account.

Exceptions may apply to the shared-debt rules in community property states, and you may be responsible only for debts that you took on as a member of a married couple. However, it is essential to seek the advice of an attorney specializing in estate planning and administration to understand the specific laws in your state and your rights and obligations in relation to your deceased spouse’s debt.

Understanding your responsibilities and rights related to your deceased spouse’s debt is crucial, especially during a difficult time. If you are faced with questions about your debt payment obligations, it is advisable to seek the advice of an experienced estate planning and administration attorney. They can provide you with the information and guidance you need to navigate this complex issue.

If you require legal assistance with your will and estate planning in Maryland, you may schedule a complimentary initial consultation with our Bauhof Legal team. Every estate is unique and individual, and this website is not intended to offer legal counsel. Please feel free to reach out to us at or give us a call at +1 (410) 876 4500.


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