Am I Responsible for my Spouse’s Debt after Death?

Hand of mature man on shoulder of woman with handkerchief lamenting loss of spouse during funeral service. Visual concept for trust and estate administration blog.

The loss of a spouse can be difficult for the surviving partner. And as much as you may want time alone to grieve, you may be responsible for handling your deceased spouse’s affairs. When a partner dies, a surviving spouse often asks, “Am I responsible for my spouse’s debt?”

In most cases, the answer is “No — you are not responsible for the debt of a deceased spouse.” However, there are exceptions, and your deceased spouse’s estate likely is responsible for paying those debts.

RKPT’s trust and estate administration attorneys can help you navigate this difficult time, determine whether a debt is valid, identify legal protections available, and help ensure a smooth estate administration.

An Overview of Debt in the Probate Process

When a person dies, their debt does not disappear. It must be satisfied. The question is, by whom?

Probate is the legal process of administering a person’s estate after death. The deceased person’s representative should take an inventory of the deceased person’s property. They identify the deceased person’s assets, debts, and other property and determine the value of the estate as a whole. The deceased person’s property will be distributed according to the terms of the deceased person’s Will or trust or, if they died without a Will, according to the laws of intestacy. But first, the deceased person’s debts must be paid.

Generally, only assets held in the name of the deceased alone are subject to probate. Assets held in a trust, life insurance policy benefits, and jointly owned property are not subject to probate.

Ohio probate law specifies the order in which estate debts are paid. Estate administration expenses are generally paid first, followed by funeral and burial expenses, taxes, and other forms of debt, such as loans and credit card balances.

An estate that lacks the money to pay its debts is known as an “insolvent estate.” When an estate is insolvent, a creditor may be unable to collect on the debt and it could go unpaid.

How Do Creditors Present Claims Against the Deceased Person’s Estate?

Ohio’s probate statutes set forth the procedure for presenting a claim against an estate. In Ohio, creditors generally have six months from the date of a person’s death to present a claim for payment. If a creditor does not follow the proper procedure for presenting a claim, the claim may be invalid and the estate is not liable for paying the debt.

If no executor or administrator has been appointed, there is no one to whom the claim can be presented.

Other times, the estate is not opened until more than six months have passed since the individual died. In these cases, the creditor would need to initiate probate proceedings on their own. Unless the debt is significant, most creditors are unlikely to incur the expense of opening an estate to formally present a claim in probate court.

When Are You Liable for Paying the Debt of a Deceased Spouse?

In most cases, the surviving spouse is not liable for the deceased spouse’s debt. However, there are exceptions. You may be responsible for paying the debts of your deceased spouse if:

  1. You were a co-signer on a loan.
  2. You were the joint owner of a credit account.
  3. The debt was incurred for “necessary items.”

Otherwise, the surviving spouse generally is not liable for the debts of their deceased spouse. But that does not mean debt collectors won’t contact you to try to collect on the debt.

Exceptions Under Ohio’s “Doctrine of Necessaries”

Medical bills can be an exception to the general rule that the surviving spouse is not responsible for the debts of a deceased spouse. Ohio’s “Doctrine of Necessaries” embodies the idea that spouses should support one another and provide each other with necessary items.

Under Ohio’s Doctrine of Necessaries, the surviving spouse may be responsible for certain debts of their deceased spouse if they were incurred for essential items such as food, clothing, shelter, and medical expenses.

How Should You Respond to Your Deceased Spouse’s Creditors?

Unless the debt is shared or you are otherwise legally responsible for it, a surviving spouse is generally not responsible for paying the debts of their deceased spouse.

If you receive calls from debt collectors trying to collect on your deceased spouse’s debt, you need to answer three questions:

  1. Is the debt valid?
  2. Was the claim presented within the statute of limitations?
  3. Are you liable for it in any way?

When answering these questions, never rely on what the debt collector tells you.

An experienced trust and estate administration lawyer can help you determine whether you are responsible for the debt, identify any legal protections to which you are entitled, and advise you on how best to deal with the debt collector.

How a Trust and Estate Administration Attorney Can Help

If you have questions about whether you are responsible for your deceased spouse’s debt, our probate and estate administration attorneys can help. We will listen as you describe your situation, answer your questions, and advise you on the next steps.

Call (513) 721-3330 or contact us today today to schedule an appointment with one of our trust and estate administration lawyers to discuss your situation.