COVID-19: Am I liable for the debt of my deceased relative?

By: Robert B. George, Esquire

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Dealing with the death of a relative, especially during these already very trying and stressful times, is a difficult task at best.  The situation is only further compounded when you find yourself having to deal with individuals contacting you about their purported debts. If you should find yourself in such a situation, it is important to know who is responsible for those debts, as well as what a debt collector is legally permitted and legally prohibited from doing in furtherance of attempting to collect such debts.

Unfortunately, debt owed by an individual does not become extinguished upon their death. However, that does not necessarily mean that you owe it or have any obligation for its payment. Generally speaking, debt remaining at the time of an individual’s death falls to and becomes the responsibility of the deceased individual’s estate.  If there isn’t enough money in the estate to cover the debt, it typically will just go unpaid. There are some exceptions to this rule, however.  For example, you could be held responsible for payment of the debt, or a portion thereof, if you were a co-signer, or in some cases if you are the spouse or the child of the deceased individual,  such as in the case of final medical or nursing home expenses.

Debt collectors may only talk with certain people about a deceased person’s debt. In that regard, debt collectors can discuss the debt with the deceased person’s spouse, the parent of a deceased minor, guardian, executor or administrator, or any other person authorized to pay debts with assets from the estate of the deceased individual.  However, debt collectors are not legally permitted to speak with anyone else about the debts of deceased individuals.  If they don’t know how to reach the right person, they can contact other relatives to ask for the correct contact information. When doing so, however, debt collectors can only call each person one time, and they are not permitted to get into the details of the underlying debt or ask the relative for any payments toward the said debt.

Debt collectors are also required to be truthful in their dealings/communications regarding the underlying debt and are prohibited from bending the truth in an attempt to get you to pay any money toward the subject debt.  In other words, debt collectors cannot lie or imply that you or any other family member legally has to pay the estate’s debts out of your own pocket. It is also illegal for a debt collector to harass you to pay the debt yourself. If the deceased individual left debts and no or insufficient assets, it is generally not your responsibility to pay those debts.

It is highly recommended that you send a letter to the debt collector formally putting them on notice and advising that you dispute the debt if you either think you don’t owe it, or you just don’t recognize it. In the letter, you will want to be as specific as possible about why you think the debt is erroneous, but be sure not to provide any unnecessary personal information which they might then use in furtherance of their attempts to collect the debt from you.  You will also want to request that they provide you with verification or validation of the underlying debt.  

Upon receipt of the validation notice, which should set forth how much is owed, to whom, for what, and what to do if you don’t think you owe the debt, you generally have 30 days to send the dispute letter. By law, the collector then must stop contacting you, although the debt doesn’t go away.  If the debt collector sends you written verification of the debt, they can start contacting you again. If their communications with you get to be too much, you can stop them by sending another letter directing them to stop contacting you.  Be sure to keep a copy of this letter, as well as all other communications to and/or from the debt collector, for your records.

Unfortunately, merely stopping the communications won’t cancel the debt, but it will give you a bit of a reprieve from the harassing contacts/communications until you have a chance to further review the situation and decide how best to handle the matter going forward. At some point, preferably early in this process, it is highly recommended that you consult with an attorney experienced in such matters.

The Law Firm of DiOrio & Sereni, LLP is a full-service law firm in Media, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. We strive to help people, businesses and institutions throughout Southeastern Pennsylvania solve legal problems – and even prevent legal problems before they occur.  To learn more about the full range of our specific practice areas, please visit or contact Robert B. George, Esquire at 610-565-5700 or at [email protected].

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