What Debts are Forgiven at Death?

By Mary Reed. September 12, 2020

If your loved one has recently died with debt, you may be wondering which debts you may have to pay and which debts are forgiven at death.

When a family member dies, most of their debts are not forgiven. In other words, they don’t go away. But that does not mean you will be legally obligated to pay what they owed when they died. Generally,

  1. You are generally not responsible for the debt of someone who died unless you were a cosigner on the account, or your spouse died and you live in a community property state.
  2. There are times where you may be responsible under state law for certain debts of a relative who died, often referred to as "filial responsibility" statutes.
  3. The creditor or collector can and often will try to collect from the assets of the estate of the person who died.

This article will tell you the truth about what happens to the debts of people when they die and when or when not their relatives are liable for those debts, including mortgages, student loans, car loans, credit card debt and other loans.

Some links on this site are for services for which we may earn a commission. This helps us keep the information on this site free. Also keep in mind this information is educational, and is not a substitute for legal advice.

What Happens to Debts After Someone Dies?

When someone dies, a legal process called “probate” is initiated. Assuming the person who died wrote a will, this process is managed by the individual the deceased designated in their will as their executor. Among other things, the executor is responsible for carrying out the wishes the deceased expressed in their will. The executor’s actions are overseen by the probate court in the county where the deceased resided.
 
At the start of the probate process, the executor catalogs the assets owned by the deceased and determines their value. These assets are referred to as the deceased’s estate and may include money, personal property or real estate. The executor also identifies all of the debts that person who died may have owed at the time of death and contacts all of the creditors to let them know about the death. After being notified, the creditors have a limited period of time within which to file claims with the court in order to be in line to get paid out of the assets in the estate.
 
Tip: Certain kinds of assets are not available to creditors when someone dies because those assets are said to “pass outside a will.” They are not part of the probate process. They include:

  • Life insurance proceeds,
  • Retirement accounts, like IRAs and 401(k)s, brokerage accounts,
  • Payable on death accounts and transfer-on-death accounts, and
  • Any assets in a living trust will not be included in the probate process.

The probate process considers some debts to be more important than others and the highest priority debts are paid first. They include secured debt like a mortgage and a car loan. Less important debts include credit card debt and unsecured personal loans. Also, in some states, before any valid claims are paid, the executor is entitled to pay all essential funeral and other final expenses from the deceased’s estate.
 
The executor will pay as many valid creditors claims as possible, which may require the sale of some of the deceased’s assets. If there is not enough money to pay all of the deceased’s debts, some creditors won’t receive any money or will receive just a portion of what they are owed.
 
Also, once the executor has paid the deceased’s debts any assets that are left will be distributed to the deceased’s beneficiaries according to the terms of their will.
 
Important: Being the executor of a will does not make you legally obligated in any way to pay the deceased’s debts out of your own funds.
 
Tip: Some people purchase life insurance policies so that if they die owing money, the policy proceeds will be available to pay off their debts. That way, the assets that they left to people in their wills can go to their beneficiaries. The proceeds can also be used to pay their final expenses, like their funeral for example.

What If There Is No Will?

If the person who died did not write a will, the probate court will initiate a process called administration, which is very similar to probate. However, rather than the process being managed by an executor, the court will appoint an administrator to do that. Also, any assets that remain after the deceased’s debts have been paid will be distributed to the deceased’s legal heirs according to the intestate law of the deceased’s estate. Legal heirs are defined by this same law and include surviving parents and siblings, among other relatives.  
 
Tip: In many states, there are informal alternatives to the traditional probate process that allow estates that are not worth much to be settled relatively quickly. And some states allow small estates to avoid probate completely. In these states, the deceased’s debts are settled through a non-court process. 

When Do You Have to Pay The Debts of a Relative Who Died?

You’ve already learned that when a loved one dies, you are probably not responsible for their debts and that as many of the deceased’s debts as possible will be paid during the probate process. There are situations however when you are legally responsible for 100% of an unpaid debt. For example, you are responsible if:

  • The debt is a joint debt. In other words, your name as well as the name of the deceased is on the debt. For example, you and your spouse may have had a joint credit card, or taken out a car loan or mortgage together.
  • You cosigned for the debt. When you cosigned for the debt, you promised that if the person who incurred the debt didn’t pay it, you would pay whatever was owed instead. You may have agreed to be a cosigner because the deceased could not qualify for the credit on their own, he or she did have a long credit history, their credit history was not good, or the deceased did not make enough money. You will be responsible for paying the cosigned debt except as we discuss below.
  • Your spouse died and you live in a community property state. In these states-- Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin-- most debts incurred by one spouse during a marriage are treated as joint debts even if only one spouse is on the account paperwork. That means that if one spouse dies owing debt, creditors are usually entitled to look to the other spouse or their joint assets for payment.

Also, if there is a filial responsibility law in your state and your deceased parent was indigent, you may be legally liable for some of their unpaid debts. For the details on this, read What You Should Know About Filial Responsibility Laws later in this article.
 
Now, let’s review the specific kinds of debts your loved one may have left behind and under what circumstances you would be liable for them. Here’s a run down:

What Happens to Mortgage Loans After Death?

If your loved one left you his or her home in their will and there is an outstanding mortgage on it, you’ll inherit the house and the money owed on it unless you turn down, or disclaim your inheritance. The process for doing so varies by state.
 
Assuming you want to keep the property, the lender may allow you to continue paying the mortgage and assume the mortgage loan at the same terms. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) requires mortgage lenders to take certain steps when a borrower dies with a mortgage. According to the CFPB:

You should inform the loan servicer if you’ve inherited a home from someone. The mortgage servicer is the company that sends the monthly mortgage statement, responds to borrower inquiries and keeps track of principal and interest paid.

To receive certain information about the mortgage account, you may need to show the mortgage servicer proof of your right to the home. In the case of inheritance from someone who has died, that proof might include a copy of the executed will and the death certificate or a letter from the executor of the deceased person’s estate. The mortgage servicer should tell you what kind of proof it needs. The proof that you can get may vary from state to state.

You also may want to ask the servicer for further information about your rights and obligations with respect to the house and the mortgage. For example, you might ask the servicer how you can continue making payments on the loan or how you can seek a loan modification.

Do not assume you can just continue paying the mortgage and keep the house. Living in the home of the relative who died – maybe because you were caring for him or her -- does not mean you have the legal right to stay there after their death. For example, the deceased may have left the home to someone else in their will. If there is no will, who gets the house will be determined by the deceased’s state of residence. If your parents died, for example, you may have siblings or other relatives who are entitled to their share of the home, for example. Talk with an estate planning attorney for advice.

Remember when we talked about how certain debts take priority in the probate process? The unpaid balance on a mortgage is one of the very first debts that a trustee will pay during the probate process and that may require them to sell the mortgaged property. Ideally, there will be enough equity built up in the home that the sales price will cover the unpaid balance. If there is not, the trustee will use other assets in the estate to pay what is owed. However, if there are no other assets, or if the value of their value is not sufficient to pay the remaining mortgage, you won’t be legally obligated to pay what is due unless you and your loved one were both on the mortgage, you co-signed for the loan, or you live in a community property state.

Is a Car Loan Cancelled After Death?

Because a car loan is a secured debt like a home mortgage, it will be one of the first debts in line to be paid. If there is enough money, as much of the deceased’s unpaid car loan will be paid during probate.
 
If you inherit the car and there is an outstanding balance on the loan, you will inherit not just the car but the loan too, and if you don’t keep up with the payments, the vehicle will be repossessed. The same is true if the loan on the car is a joint loan – you and the deceased took out the loan together – or if you cosigned for the loan: Unless you keep up with the payments, you will lose the car.  
 
If you do not want the car, you can sell it and hopefully make enough money from the sale to pay off the loan balance. If you inherit a car and there is a loan (that you didn’t cosign) and there is not enough money in the estate to pay the loan, the executor can contact the lender to instruct them how to pick up the vehicle. If you want to keep the vehicle, and you’re legally entitled to do so, you may want to explore whether you would get more favorable terms by refinancing the loan.

What Happens to Student Loan Debt After Death?

If your loved one died owing federal student loan debt, that debt will be automatically forgiven once proof of death has been provided to the lender. Proof of debt is an original death certificate or a copy of one.

If your parent dies, your parent's PLUS loan will be discharged. If a person on behalf of whom a parent obtained a PLUS loan dies, the loan is cancelled.
 
This is not necessarily the case with private student loans. Whether or not a private lender has a policy of loan forgiveness upon the death of the borrower depends on a number of factors. For example, some private student loans include death and disability provisions, which forgive a deceased’s person’s outstanding loan balance. Also, some lenders will consider cancelling a student loan on a case-by-case basis when the loan has no death and disability provisions. If you have questions, contact the lender or loan servicer.
 
If a private lender won’t cancel the deceased’s student loan debt, the lender will try to get paid from the deceased’s estate. If that is not possible, or if the lender is able to get some money from the estate,but not enough to pay the outstanding loan balance in full, it is entitled to look to you for payment if you co-signed for the loan and the loan was originated before November 20, 2018. If it was originated after that date, the federal Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act requires a private lender to release a cosigner for responsibility to pay the unpaid loan balance when the borrower dies.
 
Tip: Sallie Mae and some other private lenders will agree to discharge the balance due on a private student loan when the borrower dies. To find out if a private lender will forgive an outstanding student loan balance in this situation, read the loan paperwork. If you are still not sure, contact the lender.
 
If your spouse died with unpaid private student loan debt that was incurred during your marriage and you live in a community property state, you may be legally liable for the unpaid loan balance if the loan balance is not paid during the probate process. Whether you are liable will depend on your state because some community property states do not hold the surviving spouses liable for the education debt of their deceased husband or wife.

Is There Credit Card Debt Forgiveness After Death?

As this article has explained, during the probate process as many of the deceased’s debts will be paid as possible out of the assets in their estate. Often however, given that secured debts like a mortgage and car loan get paid before debts like the balance on unsecured debts like a credit card account, there may not be enough left to pay all or any of the balances due on those other debts.
 
So what happens to those debts when that is the case? Will you be liable for them because of your relationship to the deceased? Usually, the answer is “no” regardless of what a credit card company or a debt collector may tell you. However, there are some important exceptions to this rule and if any of these exceptions apply to you, there will be no credit card debt forgiveness at death. Therefore, you will owe your deceased loved one’s unpaid credit card debt if:

  • The debt is on a joint account. It won’t matter if you never used the card. If your name and well as your spouse’s is on the account, you have a legal obligation to pay the balance due.
  • You co-signed for the credit card with the outstanding balance.
  • The deceased was your spouse and you lived in a community property state when the credit debt was incurred.

Note that there is a difference between a joint account and an authorized user. An authorized user is not legally responsible for the balance.

What About Other Kinds of Loans After Death?

You are not responsible for the balances due on any other kind of personal loan owed by a deceased relative unless:

  • The loan is a joint debt.
  • You cosigned for the loan. If you did, you are 100% responsible for paying the balance owed.
  • The deceased was your spouse and your spouse incurred the debt when the two of you lived in a community property state.

What You Should Know about Filial Responsibility Laws

Just over half of all states plus Puerto Rico, have something called a filial responsibility law. Although their specifics vary from state to state, in a nutshell, they say that adult children are responsible for the basic needs of their parents if the parents are indigent, or unable to pay for those needs themselves. In other words, adult children are legally obligated to pay for their parents’ food clothing, shelter and medical care, including long-term care.

If your indigent parent dies owing money to a medical provider, including a long-term care provider, these laws may allow the provider to legally entitled to look to you for payment. Call the office of your state attorney general to find out if there is a filial responsibility law in your state and to get the details if there is.
 
Warning. The laws in some states say that not only are adult children legally obligated to pay for the basic needs of their impoverished parents, but also they are also responsible for the needs of other very low-income relatives. The details of these laws vary by state so be sure to consult with an attorney.

What Happens If Debt Collectors Contact You About A Deceased Person’s Debts?

If there are no assets to pay the outstanding debts of the person who died and even if you are not legally obligated to pay them, debt collectors may contact you asking for the money that is owed. Should that happen, send the collectors a certified letter stating that you are not obligated to pay the debt and that you do not want to be contacted again.
 
Once the debt collector receives your cease contact letter, the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), says that it cannot contact you again, except to notify you of any legal action it plans on taking to collect the money. By the way, your state may have its own debt collection law that provides you with protections that the FDCPA does not.
 
If you aren't sure what to do, it’s best to talk with an attorney who has experience in handling issues related to debt collection.

A debt collector who continues to contact you after you send your cease contact letter is breaking the law. Among other things for example, the collector may try to pressure you into paying the debt of your deceased relative by:

  • Saying negative things about you or about the person who died.
  • Calling you repeatedly.
  • Contacting you at the deceased’s funeral, wake, memorial service or at some other inappropriate time
  • Saying that you have a moral obligation to pay the money or that the deceased would have wanted you to pay it.
  • Threatening to sue you or throw you in jail.

If a collector contacts you after you’ve sent a cease contact letter, contact a consumer law attorney immediately.

What If I Do Owe the Debt and Can’t Pay It?

As you’ve learned from reading this article, sometimes you are legally responsible for paying the debts that your loved one left behind if they did not get paid during probate. If you find yourself in this situation and you cannot afford to pay what you owe, those debts may even show up on your credit reports with Equifax, Experian, and Trans Union, and the negative information in your credit reports will harm your credit score.
 
This article has already told you about your options if the debt is a mortgage, a car loan or a private student loan debt. But what if you end up owing more credit card debt or other unsecured debt than you can afford to pay? What are your options?
 
Tip: Although you can be sued for a past due debt, you may have rights once the statute of limitation on the debt has expired. Debt collectors can still try to collect the money you owe, but if they sue you you can raise the statute of limitations as a defense. The statute of limitation varies by type of debt and by state. For more information, contact your state attorney general’s office.
 
If you cannot afford to pay a debt that you owe, you can try to negotiate a new debt payment plan, explore debt consolidation, or look into debt settlement if the debt is unsecured, like credit card debt. Another option if the amount that you owe is far more than what you can afford to pay is to file for bankruptcy.

Dealing with Debt Collectors When Someone Dies

Deceased Person's Debt Collection Q&A

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I am a relative of a deceased person and am in the process of applying for probate. Deceased person's bank requested me to pay deceased person's debt, …

My Deceased Father's house 
My father just died in a retirement home. Me and my husband and son live in his house. He has a lean on the house to pay for his stay and the retirement …

Estate debt 
Hello, My mother passed away last October (2011) and there was 275K worth of debt secured with her home and a rental property being used as collateral. …

California state recovery 
State recovery asking for money for previous medical provided. ($14,000 ) to mom at age 55-65. Passes away with no probate..no assets. Recovery letter …

Is there a "statue of limitations" when it comes to how long a creditor may harrass you when the deceased had an insolvent estate? 
In Ohio, is there a statue of limitations on how long a creditor can harrass you or contact you when the deceased had an insolvent estate? My sister died …

Can a credit card company come after the house 
My mom passed away from cancer and had about $15k in credit card debt, het only asset was about $50k in equity in her house that she left to all of us …

Collection from nursing home residents 
Can a collection company collect from a person residing in a nursing home whose income goes to pay for his stay?

Probable Death of Spouse; How do I protect what little assets there are? 
My husband was recently diagnosed with stage 4 colorectal cancer with wide mestases to the liver and lymph nodes. While he is currently doing well with …

which assets of the deceased may be protected from creditors 
Is there a specific list of which assets of the deceased are protected from creditors?

which assets of the deceased may be protected from creditors 
Is there a specific list of which assets of the deceased are protected from creditors?

Assigned Personal Representative on Grandmother's Will 
My mother was assigned as personal Representative on my grandmother's will. I was assigned in the event my mother died before my grandmother. That happened. …

Brother ran up utility bills following death of father. Who is responsible for paying? 
After my Dad passed, my brother took over (squatter) living in the home and ran up a hefty electric bill. He may also have used credit cards. Who is …

NY a child's rights before creditors take what they are owed 
If an estate is in the 10's of thousands of dollars and workers comp. is owed by the deceased can the minor child claim some of the assets before the creditors …

funeral expenses 
My mother died October, 2011 at the hospital and I was required to sign the release. She already had a plot next to my father whichI was told was paid …

Credit card debt 
Do you have to pay credit card debt that han't been paid since Apr. 2004 after a person dies ?

estate 
once an estate is opened after parents pass can the heirs pay off the mortgage in full so debtors can not come after it?

My terminally ill partner is currently on title to the house 
Should we have him removed from title now while he is still alive to simplify things after he is gone? Or will the property automatically revert to me …

vehicle my spouse left 
I live in Chicago, Illinois. My husband died 19 months ago. He left a vehicle he was still paying for. At the time of his death the remaining balance to …

Deceased husband's debt and medical expenses 
My husband suddenly died of a heart attack. He died before reaching a treatment room as he had to fill out paperwork first. The hospital is sending bills …

liability after a death 
If a person dies and leaves a check for a person to cash to take care of funeral expenses, would that person be liable to any debtors? The person would …

Brother passed away without will. 
This is a little complicated. My brother and his wife purchased a camper trailer about six years ago through a loan with a bank. they moved to Maine …

Brother passed away without will. 
This is a little complicated. My brother and his wife purchased a camper trailer about six years ago through a loan with a bank. they moved to Maine …

defective Mortgage and payments after death 
My husband and I purchased a residence property which is registered since 1978 at the county recorders office as community property (in California). In …

Deceased Mother 
My mother has recently passed. I am now my father's POA and tryin to sift threw their bills. My mom has hospital bills and a credit card. The funny …

Parent died intestate with credit card debt  
My Mother died intestate 10 years ago with credit card debt but had already transferred her assets to me, so I never opened probate. Recently I found assets …

Executor owed by deceased 
I am the executor of my ex-husband's estate. Do I need to file a claim with the court in order to pay myself the money that is owed to me from my divorce …

Can I transfer stocks from deceased person (with debt) to me (her daughter) without creditors taking it? 
My mother passed away and was in possesion of stocks she was awarded as part of a wrongful death suit. The stockes are from Sun Healthcare Group (SUNH) …

can my sister/siblings sue me? 
my mother had a property in california. she withdrew all her equity (left 40k) to buy a house in florida and live next to my oldest sister. some family …

Am I liable for my deceased husbands back child support and taxes owed from bankruptcy? 
I'm from the state of MD. My husband, who I was married to for 4 years, died unexpectedly. My husband has been paying on back child support and paying …

can s.s. take payment from s.s. if spouse pass away and what can i do to stop it? 
if my wife recieved a over payment fromm s.s. and pass away before all is collected and now they stating that i have to pay back the over payment, the …

Reverse Mortgage 
My father had a reverse mortgage taken out in 2006. He now is deceased and had to pull down all but a few thousand dollars for his care. His name is the …

paying phone bill 
Hi, my mom just passed, she had small amount of cash in joint account with me. No assets as she lived with me in my home. Since it was joint account, …

Late brother's debt  
My brother passed away with an auto loan that is more than the vehicle is worth and significant credit card debt. His estate is not going to cover …

town car/property taxes 
Is the widow responsible for her deceased husband's old town car taxes that were not paid?

credit card debt 
If my father passed away, how is his credit card debt paid?

whos responsible?  
My father passed away March 6th, 2012 from pancreatic cancer. He never had the chance to write a will or select a power of attorney. My father didn't have …

State school and property taxes left as VA after death 
sister moved in mom and dads house after there death , home probated to 4 siblings, taxes were VA reduced then and that was all sister paid for 10 years, …

Who is responsible to pay for a hospital stay 1 week prior to my mom's death? 
My mom was taken from a rehab facilty to a hospital. The hospital said she had to be returned to the rehab place but she refused to go back. Now the hospital …

Lein on property 
In 2007 my father passed away and my mother could no longer afford the home. It was suppose to go to auction several times, but within the last year the …

GETTING MY 26000.00 BACK 
I POOT 26000.00 ON A HOUSE .I HAD THE LADY SIGN THE CHECK STUBB AND SIGN A PROMISSORY NOTE. I DIDINT NO THAT DORIS SIGNED THE HOUSE OVER TO THE DOUGHTER …

crdit card 
I paid off a credit card bill aftermy husband had in his name after he died Can I get this money back

Car rights cosigner dies 
My husband was the cosigner on the car loan and my son is the main borrower but my husband had always paid the note for his son car for college he is …

Property up for grabs by relatives 
Buying a home from a man who is dying and left no will. He has no living children or wife Did not use the bank but gave me a personal loan.....where does …

estate 
my cousin died, and the will he had was made 20 years ago. his sister is the excestor and i am listed 2nd. at the time of the will his 2 children were …

Responsible for deceased mother's mortgage loan  
I lost my mom on September of last year. Today, I received some papers in the mail trying to collect on her mortgage loan. Now, I know I'm responsible …

Mother passed; her house is paid off. 
Will they take the house even if it's paid off and I'm going to keep paying the taxes and move in with younger sister which lives with her who is on life …

Trust Fund through Probate 
My husband died almost a year ago there was no probate until his brother forced me to open one tho acquire shares in a business that reverted over to me …

Judgment on someone's estate 
a person is requesting a loan to satisfy a judgment on the his uncle's estate so he can have the ownership of three of the companies that his uncle owned. …

my car is in my mother's name, can creditors take my car? 
My car is in my mother's name and my loan is in her name, too. If the car is the only thing in the estate, can they take my car away? Do I have to pay …

husband passed away 
he had a van in his name for 2 years and still owed 3 1/2 years 6 months before he passed I tried to get my name added on and they would not do it unless …

Responsibility for husband's debt 
I live in California. Am I responsible for paying off Southern California Electric bill of $500. My husband had no will nor any money when he passed …

Liability for debt of deceased husband on car loan where he was co-signor 
My husband died almost a year ago. We live/d in NC. My deceased husband is co-signer on a car loan for my grandson. I did not sign the loan papers. I have …

beneficiary  
where can i find information if my sister left me beneficiary i want to now if thiers any money i can claim?

1099-c 
My Mother passed away in February of 2011 with debt of 32,000.00 She lived in Seminole County Florida and was a widower, she had a Homstead to protect …

Estate of a decease person and Mortage loan 
Who inicistes the probate of the estate of a decease person? I'm the spouse, do I have to do it and how? What's gonna happen if I don't do it? Also, …

Deceased medical bills 
My husband died and I'm being asked to pay his medical bills. Do I have to pay them? Reply from DebtCollectionAnswers.com Maybe. It depends in …

Estate Debt 
How to respond to collection calls when there is no money, but there are assets (houses).

In Texas. ...are my sister and I obligated to pay a nursing home bill, after our father's death? 
In early 2010 my father fell and broke his hip. After the hospital he was in a rehab center for about 3 months. Medicare paid for some of his stay. …

Utility debt collection  
Can a utility company disconnect your telephone service for an unpaid debt from over 10 years ago? It was my deceased mothers debt. The estate went through …

Old debts for a deceased person 
Is the estate required to pay really old debts? We are getting calls to pay debts from 2006, and we have no idea if the charges are warranted or may have …

Credit Card of My Deceased Sister 
My sister passed away last nov, and left me as executix. The estate was declared a small estate, $10,000. I paid her cremation, etc.. Then bank of america …

husband died leaving no estate 
my husband left me no money neither anything i can sell to get money,am i responsible for his oncology office visits

credit card debt after husband's death 
my husband died and left everything to me. His credit card is in his name and I am an authorized user, do I have to pay the credit card off ?

Spouse responsible for medical debts? 
My husband had a few surgeries before he committed suicide. The hospital and bill collectors say I am responsible for thousands of dollars on his medical …

Responsibility for Debt in a Negative Net Worth Estate 
My husband and I own several properties on which we owe more than the value. We also both have significant individual credit card debt. We live in a …

Will my father's estate pay the car loan we got together? 
My father and I jointly purchased a car. The loan is primarily in his name. He died May 2010. The bills now come to the Estate of my father but I have …

Will My Mom Owe the Medical Debt My Deceased Dad Left Behind? 
My dad recent passed. But before account he did, he was in a nursing home for about 4-5 months. His medicaid application was pending when he passed. Now …

Deceased Father's Debt 
My Father passed away quite suddenly and left behind quite a bit of credit card debt and a Equity mortgage. I sent a copy of his Death certificate to all …

Am I Responsible For Late Husband's Debts? 
I just recently married my husband 3 months ago. He passed away this week. I know he had some hospital bills that were not yet paid prior to our marriage. …

Estate Debt of Deceased Person 
My father recently dies in June. I have informed all creditors that he had no estate; thus no funds for medical invoices. I did not have power of attorney, …

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