Paying Debts After A Spouse Dies

My husband is addicted to credit cards and has heavy debt. I have never co-signed any applications for his credit cards, but I was told that if he were to die first, the estate could be sued. Is this true?
— M. Jones, Winston-Salem, NC

Since you have not co-signed on any outstanding loans or credit card debts, in most cases, you personally will not be held responsible for paying back your husband’s debts. Typically, if a married person carries a credit card solely in his or her name, many creditors will write off the debt owed them when that person dies.

However, creditors could indeed sue the estate for any outstanding debt. Whenever someone dies and leaves debts behind, the executor or administrator handles the estate. If there is no will, in many states, the spouse automatically assumes responsibility for the estate and becomes responsible for paying off debts.

If you jointly own the home, and there’s not enough money elsewhere in the estate to pay off the debts, there is a chance your home would have to be sold. Also, keep in mind that you may be held accountable for paying arrears on the mortgage, rental property, utilities, and taxes owed.

Check to see if your husband’s insurance coverage has a payment protection plan. For more assistance, consult the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (800-388-2227; and the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils (866-226-2224;