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Are Heirs Responsible for Their Loved-One’s Debts?

Northwest Elder Law Center Aug. 4, 2023

 stressed Young Asian Man Hands Holding the Head Your spouse or domestic partner has just passed away, and you’re grieving. The last thing you want to deal with is a creditor calling and demanding payment. Are you even responsible for debts accrued by the other party in your relationship?  

Washington is a community property state, which means that both assets and debts accrued during the time of marriage become part of what is called legally “the community.” The Washington Code states: 

“The whole of the community property shall be subject to probate administration for all purposes of this title, including the payment of obligations and debts of the community, the award in lieu of homestead, the allowance for family support, and any other matter for which the community property would be responsible or liable if the decedent were living.”

The probate process, which is carried out in the Superior Court in which you and your late partner lived, is designed to honor all obligations before distributing assets. The personal representative named in the decedent’s last will and testament will oversee the process according to established legal procedures. If there is no will and the person died intestate, then the court will appoint a personal representative, also often called an administrator or executor. 

If you’re not the spouse or domestic partner and a loved one, perhaps a parent, passes away, you are not liable for their debts, but the estate would be. The probate process in this situation would also handle the payment of all outstanding obligations.

In or around Kennewick, Washington, rely on Northwest Elder Law Center for all your probate and estate planning questions and needs. Being a personal representative during probate can be challenging, and you will no doubt encounter situations that require legal counsel and advice. Reach out immediately. Northwest Elder Law Center also proudly serves clients in Olympia, Tumwater, Lacey, Shelton, Centralia, and Chehalis. 

Do Debts Go Away When Someone Passes Away? 

The answer to that is no. The person’s estate is liable to pay the debts off. In a community property state such as Washington, however, the surviving spouse or domestic partner can also be on the hook for those debts since, as quoted above, the debts become part of the community—the marriage pact. 

Other relatives would not be liable, just the estate. There are some exceptions, however, even if you’re the spouse of the decedent. Any debts acquired before the time of marriage are not your responsibility, nor are any debts acquired during a time of legal separation. 

Estate Administration During Probate 

When the loved one dies with or without a last will and testament, then probate proceedings will commence to resolve outstanding obligations, settle the estate, and then transfer the assets to the spouse or domestic partner.  

Not all assets need to go through probate, however. Life insurance policies and retirement plans with a named beneficiary transfer outside of probate, as does any property held in joint tenancy with the right of survivorship. Assets held in a living trust or a community property agreement likewise are not subject to probate. Transfer-on-death accounts also avoid probate. 

If probate does proceed, the personal representative, or executor, as the person is referred to in many states, has several obligations, one of which is to make sure all creditors are paid. The personal representative is obligated to inform creditors of the passing of the decedent. They then have four months to submit their claims. The personal representative meanwhile needs to collect the assets of the deceased and place them in a bank account. If assets need to be sold to raise cash, that also needs to be handled.

Fortunately, in Washington State, courts are less demanding and intrusive during probate proceedings than in other states, so the personal representative is freer to carry out their responsibilities without filing a ton of reports with the judge. Obstacles can still arise if the will is contested, but this would probably only happen if there is no surviving spouse or domestic partner. 

Can Creditors Harass Heirs for the Decedent’s Debts? 

The first thing to remember is that, unless you’re a spouse or domestic partner in a community property state like Washington, you’re under no obligation to honor your loved one’s debts unless you were a co-signer on them. Under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), creditors and debt collectors can only contact the spouse, the parents of someone under 18 who died, the personal representative, or the attorney for the estate. 

Even if you are a responsible party such as a spouse, you can email or write the creditor or debt collector and ask them to cease contacting you, which they are required by law to do. The whole issue, however, should be handled by the personal representative in probate

Experienced Attorneys Protecting Your Rights 

If you’ve lost a loved one and creditors are seeking payment, you have rights that need to be honored. For questions and concerns about probate and estate administration in or around Kennewick, Washington, contact Northwest Elder Law Center.  

Attorney Robert Taylor-Manning and associates have lengthy experience in probate and estate administration and stand ready to help you resolve any issue.