Can I Be Held Personally Responsible for a Deceased Family Member’s Debts?
Many of us are at our most vulnerable in the days following a family member’s death. Unfortunately, some debt collectors try to prey upon this grief by contacting these same family members in an attempt to obtain the money they are owed. In some cases, these collectors may try and convince family members that they can be held personally responsible for the debt.
But that is not the law. To the contrary, unless a family member is a co-signer on the debt in question, such as a loan or credit card, they are in no way obligated to satisfy their relative’s debts. A debt collector may contact a relative to obtain the name, address, and telephone number of the decedent’s spouse or personal representative, but that is all.
In fact, it is the personal representative of the estate who is responsible for paying any valid debts owed by the decedent. Note that the personal representative is only required to pay these debts from the assets of the estate itself. The personal representative is not personally liable for such debts.
Additionally, the personal representative can tell a third-party debt collector to cease contacting them directly about a debt. This does not mean, however, that the debt collector cannot take legal action. The collector may file a creditor claim against the probate estate or file a lawsuit when appropriate.
Understanding the Priority of Estate Debts
Another thing to consider: Even though you are not responsible for paying a family member’s debts, their creditors will get priority over the estate. In other words, even if you are a named beneficiary of your relative’s will, the personal representative is always required to pay the decedent’s debts first.
Florida law actually specifies the order in which a personal representative must pay an estate’s expenses and obligations. The costs of administering the estate itself always take top priority. Debts then have priority over distributions to beneficiaries.
But not all debts are treated the same. Some debts take priority over others. For instance, tax debts usually outrank all other debts, followed by medical bills, back child support, debts related to the decedent’s business, and finally any unsecured debts such as credit cards or civil judgments.
If there is not enough money to satisfy all of the debts, then some creditors may simply walk away empty handed. When there are two or more competing debts with the same level of priority, the personal representative may need to apportion the remaining estate assets accordingly. That is to say, each creditor may end up walking away with less than the full amount owed to them.
Get Help from a Florida Probate Lawyer
Again, the critical thing to remember is that just because you were related to someone who died–or even a person named in their will–that does not make you responsible for paying off their debts. If you have further questions or concerns and would like to speak with an experienced Fort Myers estate planning attorney, contact the Kuhn Law Firm, P.A., today at 239-333-4529.