Can I Inherit Debt?

Man trying to role a huge boulder labeled "DEBT" up a steep hillWhen someone passes away leaving debts behind, you might be wondering if you have any personal liability to pay them. If you have aging parents, for instance, you may be worried about having to assume responsibility for their mortgage payments, credit cards or other debts. If you’ve asked yourself, “Can I inherit debt?” the answer is typically no, even though those debts don’t automatically disappear. But there are situations in which you may have to deal with a loved one’s creditors after they’re gone.

How Debts Are Handled When Someone Passes Away

Debts, just like assets, are considered part of a person’s estate. When that person passes away, their estate is responsible for paying any and all remaining debts. The money to pay those debts comes from the asset side of the estate.

In terms of who is responsible for making sure the estate’s debts are paid, this is typically done by an executor. An executor performs a number of duties to wrap up a person’s estate after death, including:

  • Getting a copy of the deceased person’s will if they had one and filing it with the probate court
  • Notifying creditors and other entities of the person’s death (for example, the Social Security Administration would need to be notified so any Social Security benefits could be stopped)
  • Completing an inventory of the deceased person’s assets and their value
  • Liquidating those assets as needed to pay off any debts owed by the estate
  • Distributing the remaining assets to the people or organizations named in the deceased person’s will if they had one or according to inheritance laws if they did not

In terms of debt repayment, executors are required to give notice to creditors who may have a claim against the estate. Creditors are then giving a certain window of time, according to state laws, in which to make a financial claim against the estate’s assets for repayment of debts.

If a creditor doesn’t follow state guidelines for making a claim, then those debts won’t be paid from the estate’s assets. But if creditors are less than reputable, they may try to come after the deceased person’s spouse, children or other family members to collect what’s owed.

Not all assets in an estate may be used to repay debts owed by a deceased person. Any assets that already have a named beneficiary, such as a life insurance policy, a 401(k), individual retirement account, payable on death accounts or annuity, would be transferred to that beneficiary automatically.

Can I Inherit Debt From My Parents?

Pencil erasing the word "DEBT"

This is an important question to ask if your parents are carrying high amounts of debt and you’re worried about having to pay those bills when they pass away. Again, the short answer is usually no. You generally don’t inherit debts belonging to someone else the way you might inherit property or other assets from them. So even if a debt collector attempts to request payment from you, there’d be no legal obligation to pay.

The catch is that any debts left outstanding would be deducted from the estate’s assets. If your parents were substantially in debt when they passed away, repaying them from the estate may leave little or no assets for you to inherit.

But you should know that you can inherit debt that you were already legally responsible for while your parents were alive. For instance, if you cosigned a loan with them or opened a joint credit card account or line of credit, those debts are legally yours just as much as they are your parents. So, once they pass away, you’d be solely responsible for repaying them.

And it’s also important to understand what responsibility you may have for covering long-term care costs incurred by your parents while they were alive. Many states have filial responsibility laws that require children to cover nursing home bills, though they aren’t always enforced. Talking to your parents about long-term care planning can help you avoid situations where you may end up with an unexpected debt to pay.

Can I Inherit Debt From My Children?

The same rules that apply to inheriting debt from parents typically apply to inheriting debts from children. Any debts remaining would be paid using assets from their state.

Otherwise, unless you cosigned for the debt, then you wouldn’t be obligated to pay. On the other hand, if you cosigned private student loans, a car loan or a mortgage for your adult child who then passed away, as cosigner you’d technically have a legal responsibility to pay them. Federal student loans are an exception.

If your parents took out a PLUS loan to pay for your higher education costs and something happens to you, the Department of Education can discharge that debt due to death. And vice versa, if your parents pass away then any PLUS loans they took out on your behalf could also be discharged.

Can I Inherit Debts From My Spouse?

When marriage and money mix, the lines on inherited debt can get a little blurred. The same basic rule that applies to other situations applies here: if you cosigned or took out a joint loan or line of credit together, then you’re both equally responsible for the debt. If one of you passes away, the surviving spouse would still have to pay.

But what about debts that are in one spouse’s name only? That’s where it’s important to understand how living in a community property state can affect your liability for marital debts. If you live in a community property state, debts incurred after the marriage by one spouse can be treated as a shared financial obligation. So if your spouse opened up a credit card or took out a business loan, then passed away you could still be responsible for paying it. On the other hand, debts incurred by either party before the marriage wouldn’t be considered community debt.

Consider Getting Help If You Need It

If a parent, spouse, sibling or other family member passes away, it can be helpful to talk to an attorney if you’re being pressured by debt collectors to pay. An attorney who understands debt collection laws and estate planning can help you determine what your responsibilities are for repaying debts and how to handle creditors.

The Bottom Line

Son talks with his mother about her debtWhether or not you’ll inherit debt from your parents, child, spouse or anyone else largely hinges on whether you cosigned for that debt or live in a community property state in the case of married couples. If you’re concerned about inheriting debts, consider talking to your parents, children or spouse about how those financial obligations would be handled if they were to pass away. Likewise, you can also discuss what financial safety nets you have in place to clear any debts you may leave behind, such as life insurance.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about how to manage and pay off debts you owe or any debts you might inherit from someone else. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be difficult. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect with an advisor in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get your personalized advisor recommendations online. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act caps the statute of limitations for unpaid debt collections at a maximum of six years, although most states specify a much shorter time frame. However, some debt collectors buy so-called zombie debts for pennies on the dollar and then – unscrupulously – try to collect on them. Here’s how to deal with such operators.

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Source: smartasset.com

How to Change the Executor of a Will

A last will and testamentDrafting a last will and testament can help to ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes after you pass away. You can also use your will to name a legal guardian for minor children or choose an executor for your estate. It’s possible to make changes to your will after it’s written, including removing or adding an executor if necessary. If you’re wondering how to change the executor of a will after the fact, the process is easier than you might think. As you go about the process, it may behoove you to find a trusted financial advisor in your area for hands-on guidance.

Executor of a Will, Explained

The executor of a will is the person responsible for carrying out the terms of a will. When you name someone as executor, you’re giving him or her authority to handle certain tasks related to the distribution of your estate.

Generally, an executor can be any person you name. For example, that might include siblings, your spouse, adult children or your estate planning attorney. Minor children can’t serve as executors and some states prohibit convicted felons from doing so as well.

There’s no rule preventing a beneficiary of a will from also serving as executor. While beneficiaries can’t witness a will in which they have a direct interest, they can be charged with executing the terms of the will once you pass away.

What Does the Executor of a Will Do?

Being executor to a will means there are certain duties you’re obligated to carry out. Those include:

  • Obtaining death certificates after the will-maker passes away
  • Initiating the probate process
  • Creating an inventory of the will-maker’s assets
  • Notifying the will-maker’s creditors of the death
  • Paying off any outstanding debts owed by the will-maker
  • Closing bank accounts if necessary
  • Reading the will to the deceased person’s heirs
  • Distributing assets to the persons named in the will

Executors can’t change the terms of the will; they can only see that its terms are carried out. An executor can collect a fee for their services, which is typically a percentage of the value of the estate they’re finalizing.

Reasons to Change the Executor of a Will

While you may draft a will assuming that your choice of executor won’t change, there are different reasons why making a switch may be necessary. For example, you may need to choose a new executor if:

  • Your original executor passes away or becomes seriously ill and can’t fulfill his or her duties
  • You named your spouse as executor but you’ve since gotten a divorce
  • The person you originally named decides he or she no longer wants the responsibility
  • You’ve had a personal falling out with your executor
  • You believe that a different person is better equipped to execute your will

You don’t need to provide a specific reason to change the executor of a will. Once you’re ready to do so there are two options to choose from: add a codicil to an existing will or draft a brand-new will.

Using a Codicil 
to Change the Executor of a Will

Woman changes her will

A codicil is a written amendment that you can use to change the terms of your will without having to write a new one. Codicils can be used to change the executor of a will or revise any other terms as needed. If you want to change your will’s executor using a codicil, the first step is choosing a new executor. Remember, this can be almost anyone who’s an adult of sound mind, excluding felons.

Next, you’d write the codicil. In it, you’d specify the changes you’re making to your will (i.e. naming a new executor), the name of the person who should serve as executor going forward and the date the change should take effect. You’d also need to validate the codicil the same way you did your original will.

This means signing and dating the codicil in the presence of at least two witnesses. Witnesses must be legal adults of sound mind and they can’t have an interest in the will. So, a beneficiary to the will couldn’t witness your codicil but a neighbor or coworker could if they don’t stand to benefit from the will directly or indirectly.

Once the codicil is completed and signed by yourself and the witnesses, you can attach it to your existing will. It’s helpful to keep a copy of your will and the codicil in a safe place, such as a safe deposit box. You may also want to give a copy to your estate planning attorney if you have one.

Writing a New Will to 
Change the Executor of a Will

If you need to change more than just the executor of your will, you might consider drafting a new will document. The process for drafting a new will is similar to the one you followed for making your original one.

You’d need to specify who your beneficiaries will be, how you want your assets to be distributed and who should serve as executor. The new will would also need to be signed and properly witnessed.

But you’d have to take the added step of destroying all copies of the original will. This is necessary to avoid confusion and potential challenges to the terms of the will after you pass away. If you’re not sure how to draft a new will to replace an existing one, you may want to talk to an estate planning attorney to make sure you’re doing so legally.

What Happens If You Don’t Name an Executor?

Probate court hearing form

If, for any reason, you choose not to name an executor in your will the probate court can assign one. After you pass away, eligible persons can apply to become the executor of your estate. The person the court chooses would then be able to carry out the terms of your will. If you don’t have a will at all, then your assets would be distributed according to your state’s inheritance laws.

That’s why it’s important to take the time to at least write a simple will. This way, there’s no question of your estate being divided among your heirs the way that you want it to be.

The Bottom Line

Making a will can be a good starting point for shaping your estate plan. Naming an executor means you don’t have to rely on the probate court to do it. But if you need to change the executor of your will later, it’s possible to do so with minimal headaches.

Tips for Estate Planning

  • Consider talking to a financial advisor about creating an estate plan and what you might need. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool can help you connect with an advisor in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get your personalized recommendations online. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • A will is just one document you may need as part of your estate plan. You may also consider setting up a trust, for example, if you have extensive assets or own a business. Life insurance is something you may also need to have, along with an advance health care directive and/or power of attorney.

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